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Black Violin's hip-hop meets classical; a Far Side close to home; a killer film fest

Nov 7, 2019
Originally published on November 7, 2019 10:30 am

Black Violin is not a Frankenstein creation, where we can see all of the parts stitched together, the bolts sticking out of the neck, the lumbering gait. “We approach the performance like rappers, but the music is approached sort of like Beethoven,” says Kev Marcus.

Black Violin. Kev Marcus on violin, Wil B on viola. Plus a DJ and drums. On Thursday, they’re bringing this surprising fusion of classical and hip-hop to Kodak Center, 200 W. Ridge Road.

The band’s new album, “Take the Stairs,” was released earlier this week.

“It’s who we are,” Kev Marcus says. “Two black kids from South Florida that listen to hip-hop every day, that studied classical music and played it at a very high level, and we’re blending both of these worlds together. Because we understand them both. We are truly classical and are truly hip-hop. That’s hopefully why it feels organic and genuine to you.”

Black Violin didn’t invent musical mash-ups, which have not always been greeted by open minds. Jazz traditionalists often snub jazz fusion, but Chick Corea makes a pretty good argument on its behalf; his sound is jazz, but with enough rock, funk, R&B and extension cords to shade it in a different direction. 

Rock bands – Electric Light Orchestra, Procol Harum’s “Conquistador” – have shown a particular fondness for slathering guitars with strings. The Eastman School of Music produced one such dynamic curiosity as well in Break of Reality, a quartet of three cellos and a percussionist that have been playing Metallica, the theme from “Game of Thrones” and originals since 2006.

But the trick lies in creating a sound that isn’t pandering to one genre or the other. Something that doesn’t sound like a gimmick. And in that, Black Violin does succeed.

“The inspiration comes first,” Kev Marcus says. “You know, we have a lot of places we draw from, but ultimately we want to kind of appeal to what kind of emotional response we’re trying to get from you, and then we decide if we want to use the classical or the hip-hop.”

Other musicians have embraced it. Black Violin has recorded or shared a stage with Alicia Keys, Wu-Tang Clan, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Tom Petty, Lupe Fiasco and Aerosmith. After an appearance on Queen Latifah’s television talk show, she praised Black Violin for “its physicality.” A muscular – that’s the word Kev Marcus likes to use – stage presence where the hip-hop seems more dominant than the Beethoven.

Black Violin actually started in elementary school, where both guys knew each other. Wil B – he was Wilner Baptiste back then – earned his strings through an accident. He wanted to learn the saxophone, but got stuck in the wrong class. Kev Marcus – he answered to Kevin Sylvester – owes it to his mother. “My mother made me do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to play violin at all. I was just hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood and I was getting into trouble. And my mom thought that I needed to spread my wings, and I needed to find other people to be influenced by besides my friends in the neighborhood.”

They’ve been at it for more than a decade, with a highlight two sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community outreach – especially with young black students in neighborhoods where classical music holds little traction – is a big part of Black Violin.

It all fell together on the night Black Violin played for the notoriously tough audience of Showtime at the Apollo. It’s a competition, and the first four acts drew boos, Kev Marcus remembers. “So we were scared, but then we ended up winning the entire thing. It gave us the confidence to quit our jobs and start a career of chasing this dream of Black Violin.”

Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show, ranging from $19 to $75, are available from ticketmaster.com.

We’re moving

The soulful rockers The Jane Mutiny welcomed the birth of this new entertainment column by dedicating a version of The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” to it during its show Friday at The Little Café. Starting next week, Across the Universe moves from Thursday, where you found it the first four weeks, to Wednesdays, to give our friends at CITY Newspaper access to this material as well.

Jon Gary’s Far Side

Jon Gary is most familiar here as bassist with Woody Dodge, The Crabapples and a new band that’s yet to get out of the basement, The Starlings, featuring Meg Gehman on vocals. But he’s also a prodigious illustrator, and set a personal goal early in 2013 of producing one cartoon a day. “Nobody compelled me to do it,” he says. “I just did it.”

Yes, no human with any conscience would ask another human to daily dig so deeply into the well of darkness that has produced “This Is Not What I Consider Art,” a self-published book. After that first-year of self-imposed cartoonery, Gary’s backed off some. Just some. He’s still doing three or four a week. From the resulting 2,000 mostly one-panel cartoons, and that’s a wild guess, he selected about three dozen (it depends on how you count the multi-image ones) for the book.

A semi-retired software designer, he’s not a trained artist, and it kind of shows. “I drew very quickly, so it was very crude and simple,” Gary says of his early works. But untethered from cartoonist convention, this is primitive strangeness observed from a dispassionate, distant perspective. It is deadlier, the references more obtuse, than the celebrated standard of one-panel weirdness, “The Far Side.”

Gary introduces us to Hieronymus Bosch creatures delivering snacks from Bosch’s famously hellish painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Don Quixote riding a giraffe. Bad decisions being made, as in the choice of a hyena as a family pet. Or a man on a beach kneeling in front of a towering coffee percolator and channeling Charlton Heston in the final scene from “Planet of the Apes, shouting “Damn you all to hell!”

The book’s only outlet as of now, unless you encounter Gary himself, is through jongaryart.com.

Anomaly: A killer film festival

Ask Adam Lubitow, a film critic at CITY Newspaper, to name his all-time favorite film and, predictably, he’ll say the answer changes all of the time, depending on his mood. During this phone conversation, his mood dictates “Moulin Rouge!” as the front-runner.

That 2001 musical set in Paris is a long, long way from “Deathcember,” which this weekend’s Anomaly: The Rochester Genre Film Festival presents in the family-friendly slot of 11 a.m. Sunday. “Deathcember” is a horror anthology, but set up like an Advent calendar, with each of the 24 short films that comprise the holiday-themed movie the work of a different director. That includes Ruggero Deodato, creator of the acclaimed “Cannibal Holocaust.”

And what’s the body count on Deathcember?

“I can’t even imagine. High,” says Lubitow, the festival’s programming director. But they loved it in Spain, where it played to a sold-out theater in its world debut last week. Rochester will be the North American premiere of “Deathcember.”

This is the debut of Anomaly as well, with an ambitious, three-day program at The Cinema Theater, 957 S. Clinton Ave. It starts at 5 p.m. Friday with the Passholder Happy Hour at The Angry Goat Pub, kitty-corner from The Cinema. It winds down Sunday night after 10 feature films, 20 shorts and an array of happy hour, breakfast, eggnog and after-show events.

“It started out selfishly,” says Lubitow. “I want to see these movies. I know there’s an audience here.”

The word “genre” has been hijacked for the purposes of Anomaly: The Rochester Genre Film Festival. “In the film world, it has evolved into an umbrella term for horror, science fiction and action,” Lubitow says. “The things that aren’t straight-up comedy or drama.

“In general, I’m a fan of these types of movies. We have a lot of great film festivals in Rochester, but they tend to not focus as much on genre films. There are a lot of great films like this that tend to not land here.”

So clear the runway on Friday’s opening night for “In Fabric,” the story of a deadly dress, paired with “The Obliteration of the Chickens,” which is only three minutes long because it’s about the boring life of chickens, so, what do you expect? “Lawrence of Arabia?”

While a Siskel and Ebert Splatterfest never happened, Lubitow says serious film elites will find something praiseworthy to be said for “Bacurau,” showing Saturday. A futuristic Brazilian spaghetti-western with “a lot of substance to it, a lot under the surface, a lot of references to the political unrest they have today,” he says.

“Horror and science fiction have this disreputable reputation. But I think people are coming around to the fact that a lot of them are sneaking in messages as a part of the package.”

For a complete schedule and tickets, go to anomalyfilmfest.com.

Correction

In last week’s Across the Universe, I incorrectly quoted folk singer Christine Lavine’s reference to the “Cloud Appreciation Society.” Which is a real thing. In a story that did touch on hearing loss, I thought Lavin had said, “Clown Appreciation Society.” Not a bad idea in itself, as clowns are in need of a little love after the character assassination they endure at the hands of the likes of Stephen King.

Around our universe…

Blues icon Buddy Guy has an 8 p.m. Saturday show at Kodak Center, 200 W. Ridge Road… Lena Herzog is here at 6 p.m. Thursday for a book signing and talk on her exhibit at the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre, 900 East Ave. “Last Whispers – Oratorio For Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Fallen Tree” is an ambitious multimedia presentation that ranges from recordings of extinct and endangered languages to digital renderings of collapsing stars to animation to landscape videos shot from drones. “Last Whispers” itself will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10, and $5 for students… Also in the multimedia category, the universe is again on display, along with original works and classical compositions by Bach, when Chicago’s Axiom Brass plays 2 p.m. Sunday at Nazareth College’s Beston Hall in the Glazer Music Performance Center, 4245 East Ave.… Nice rock shows in intimate settings Saturday evening with Chris Trapper at Flour City Station and Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles at Abilene Bar & Lounge… Stephane Wrembel, the Django Reinhardt-hearted guitarist, has shows 8 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Lovin’ Cup Bistro & Brews in Henrietta, near the Rochester Institute of Technology campus… Kansas is at Kodak Center at 8 p.m. Friday, playing in its entirety its 40-year-old album “Point of Know Return.” Former lead singer Steve Walsh is watching from retirement. And Styx is at Main Street Armory at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Its former lead singer, Dennis DeYoung, is safely pursuing other projects… Writers & Books, 740 University Ave., features two award-winning local authors, poet Sarah Freligh and essayist Gail Hosking, at its Genesee Reading Series, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Admission is $5… Kat Edmonson evokes a vintage age of Billie Holiday jazz when she sings 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs St.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.