Thursday December 20, 2012

NORFOLK, CONN. -- Sultans of String plays a kind of music without borders. An acoustic quintet with influences from Gypsy jazz to Cuban dance music to rhumba flamenco, the Toronto-based group crafts songs built from its players' different musical pieces.

The group will play Infinity Hall tonight.

With core members Chris McKool (fiddle), Kevin Laliberté and Eddie Paton on flamenco guitar, bassist Drew Birston and percussionist Chendy Leon, the group has recorded three well-received albums and garnered a slew of awards and award nominations north of the border. Last month they earned "world group of the year" honors at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

McKool said the band's members have areas of expertise in different forms of folk and ethnic musics from around the world, but they also grew up listening to singer-songwriters like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, and big rock bands like Pink Floyd and The Who.

"We've all got the pop form mentality firmly stamped in our head. So we took these world music rhythms but just naturally seal them in pop forms, which makes them a lot more accessible to North American audiences," McKool said in a telephone interview from his home.

Sultans of String originated in a jazz quartet McKool led. He had played with many different projects as a musician, composer and producer, and even recorded an album of children's music.


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Laliberté filled in one night for the usual guitarist; McKool was intrigued as soon as he heard the newcomer warming up with a Latin-sounding dance rhythm.

McKool asked what it was, and Laliberté told him it was rhumba flamenco, the percussion-heavy Spanish style.

"I fell in love with it immediately," McKool recalled, and he hired Laliberté as the jazz quartet's regular guitarist. To fill time in the group's monthly residency, they began creating spontaneous compositions.

"We decided, what the heck, we'll just make stuff up. Every night we made up spontaneous tunes," he said, and as the group transitioned into the Sultans of String, "the ideas evolved into songs, and those songs pretty much filled up the first two albums we recorded."

Part of McKool's apprenticeship included touring with a band that focused on the music of pioneering jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. McKool was drawn to the quick tempos, heavy swing and heightened role for violin and acoustic guitar.

"Before I met Kevin, I was really interested in the Gypsy jazz stuff. I find it really addictive -- full of energy and life and masterful songwriting and masterful playing," he said.

A strain of Middle Eastern music infuses McKool's style as well, inspired by his Lebanese roots.

The synthesis of styles can be seen with the title track of the group's second album, "Yalla Yalla." The group had been playing a version of Duke Ellington's jazz classic "Caravan" (which has more than a touch of Middle Eastern feel already) set to a rhumba rhythm.

"I said, you know we could just write a tune like this," McKool said. "Not rip it off, but use it as an inspirational starting point to write our own tune. That's often how we'll work. We'll use people we meet, or historical events that move us, or places we go to, as inspirations. Sometimes it's a song that becomes an inspirational launching point for writing a tune."

The band has not yet had a major breakthrough in the United States, but it earned tonight's gig in Connecticut with sweat and skill. The Sultans opened there for Livingston Taylor, in the midst of its regular touring, and made such an impression that the venue invited the group back for a headlining show. The band is making the drive from Toronto especially for this show, and then heading back.

"The audience loved them. It was just masterful. We have a very sophisticated audience here in northwestern Connecticut, and when they react that way, it's pretty obvious" the group should return, said Infinity's director of entertainment, Jack Forchette.

The quintet will next turning its roving musical curiosity to European classical music, with an album (due next fall) backed by a 60-piece symphony orchestra.

On the day of the telephone interview, McKool said, the band was wrestling with whether or not to rent out a major concert hall in Toronto for a record-release event.

"It's really a big step, but I think we're ready for it," he said. "It's kind of a ridiculous proposition, and yet it seems like the only option that really makes sense."