Good Juju

Chris Black joins other local music luminaries to create ... chamber music?

We found Chris Black on the patio at Hotel Congress, using Sibelius software to compose music on his laptop, coffee and cigarettes within reach. His right wrist was armored temporarily in a brace, thanks to an extra-busy week of playing violin.

"This is something new; I've never had this sort of strain before," he admitted, nodding at the brace. "It was kind of a heavy week, but I think it'll heal pretty quickly."

Two days before, he'd played a two-hour Club Crawl® gig with the Tucson Casual Social Club ("basically five bands made up of the same seven people"), for which there were several days of intense rehearsal. Also that week, Black had a concert with Jimmy Carr and the Awkward Moments, and a solo gig at a Titanic-themed dinner at Maynards Market and Kitchen.

Each of those performances was on the violin, which may have contributed to the repetitive stress on Black's wrist. He usually alternates instruments depending on the gig. He cites drums and upright bass as his main instruments, but also can be found playing guitar, banjo, accordion and piano.

"And I can do certain things with a trombone," he added with a wicked grin. "I can create very evocative, personal music on it."

Black—who relocated from Austin to Tucson three years ago—plays with a variety of local artists, but lately, his main creative outlets have been performing in the gypsy-music duo Bajo Turbato with Gabriel Sullivan, as well as in Sullivan's explosive new big band, Taraf de Tucson.

Black's 2006 album, Jericho, is still available, and the results of many of his other musical ventures can be downloaded as MP3s from his website,

Now audiences will be able to hear another side of Chris Black with the debut of the project ChamberLab, for which he and other nonclassical composers have written pieces for a string chamber ensemble. (You can listen to excerpts from early rehearsals at his website.)

ChamberLab I will happen Saturday night, May 8, at the Screening Room, an independent downtown movie theater that recently has become a hotspot for creative musical events.

Black, 40, first took piano lessons as a child in Burnet, Texas, where both of his parents were music teachers, a situation that allowed him to pick up almost any instrument that struck his fancy.

"Then when I was in school in band, I would play the glockenspiel and the bass drum. In high school, I started playing drums and upright bass."

He studied for a couple of years at the University of Texas and spent several more working and playing music in Austin, Los Angeles and Paris. He's played country, punk, cabaret, blues and gypsy music, sometimes all at once.

He moved to Tucson in the summer of 2007 after visiting town several times on tour, drawn by Tucson's thriving music and arts community.

"Every time I came through here, I met more amazing people, all of whom seemed to live within six blocks of each other, in the barrio—artists, painters, poets, chefs, musicians, video artists, everything."

He wasn't worried about finding musicians to play with, because he had already struck up friendships with such musicians as violinist Vicki Brown, guitarist Mike Bagesse and "a bunch of other people."

In addition to Black, the roster of composers for the event will include some of that bunch: Sullivan, Howe Gelb, Marco Rosano, Dante Rosano, Carlos Lopez and Graham Reynolds, an Austin-based musician with whom Black has often played.

Reynolds indirectly provided impetus to Black to create ChamberLab, but it was "totally accidental," he said.

Eight years ago, Reynolds (of the Golden Arm Trio) and Peter Stopschinski (of Brown Whornet) started an ongoing series of chamber-music concerts; the organizers actively solicited classical compositions from rock, punk and blues musicians. "And I was a regular contributor to that," Black said.

One of those performances, for double string quartet and contrabass, was canceled because the principal violinist suffered an injury. The music Black composed for it went unperformed and was filed away.

The piece, titled "Crime Scenes," was inspired by the work of James Ellroy, an acclaimed hard-boiled novelist. "(Ellroy) was doing a book signing for, I think it was The Cold Six Thousand in Houston, and I drove down there, and he autographed the title page of the score. So it's full of all kinds of good juju," Black said.

That juju must have brought "Crime Scenes" back into Black's life. Three months ago, he still had never heard his composition when he found it stored at home. So he began to plan an event in which it could be performed, he said.

Inviting his friends to participate seemed like an obvious move. After months of conversations, e-mails and negotiations, his group of composers and musicians finally is coming together for the first ChamberLab.

He has assembled the players mostly from the UA, University High School and the Tucson Junior Strings, with one ringer: Christabelle Merrill, who plays with singer-songwriter Leila Lopez. "I spoke with a lot of professional players, too, and they were all very interested, but unfortunately, I picked the busiest time of the year for professional, working string-quartet players. But they gave me a lot of references to their best students."

As the project has come together, Black's enthusiasm for it has increased. A few days after the interview on the Hotel Congress patio, he provided this snapshot of rehearsals:

"The musicians are all on point and very, very young, and quite good. The composers are all nervous as hell, because they are out of their element. Most of them huddle out in the alley and chain-smoke when they're not on deck. The music is beautiful and scary and cool. It's just a great scene, and (it) embodies what I wanted from this thing from the start."

Black also will play bass with Reynolds when the Golden Arm Trio performs a tribute to Duke Ellington on Friday, May 7, at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St. That show will also feature Bajo Turbato, as well as Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors. Admission is $5.


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