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Zvonimir Tot's Jazz Stringtet at PianoForte in Chicago

Zvonimir Tot is a guitarist who has performed with jazz trio’s, quartets, vocalists and most recently he released a duo recording with bassist Kelly Sill entitled “Standards Live at the Jazz Showcase”.

This Sunday, November 6th, at 3pm,Tot will be changing gears from the traditional jazz groups he has performed with in the past, and perform with a relatively new project called the "Zvonimir Tot's Jazz Stringtet" at PianoForte in Chicago. The Stringtet performs original compositions by Tot that combine jazz and classical music elements into a very unique sound. We talked with Tot about his new project and how he conceptualized the group.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: This Sunday you will be performing at PianoForte in Chicago with your Stringtet. Tell us about why you decided to create this type of group.

Tot: I have always had an affinity for string instruments. Over the years, I wrote music for projects with strings in Holland, Serbia, and the US, but none of it included me as a player. A while ago I decided it was time to form a crossover jazz-classical group performing only my original music. Luckily, the band members are all outstanding and stylistically open-minded players who make the music come alive.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: How different is composing for a string sextet to composing for typical jazz groups?

Tot: One of the main differences is the absence of drums. As much as I love drums (and many drummers), this was deliberate. I wanted a chamber sound. This naturally poses some challenges in establishing a solid groove. Fortunately, Rob Kassinger is an excellent jazz bassist (in addition to his other gig with Chicago Symphony Orchestra), so the time-keeping duties are shared between him, me, and occasionally the other strings. There are also many technical idiosyncrasies associated with writing for strings. While I know the capabilities of the double bass rather well, there are ways to check whether a particular passage is playable on other instruments. For example, I check the more involved violin passages on the mandolin; the mandolin shares the same tuning with violin, but mercifully it has frets. The best learning experience naturally comes from the members of the group; their kind feedback on technical and stylistic details is invaluable.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: With the string sextet do you find yourself hearing the changes differently and being inspired in a different way than when you perform with a jazz rhythm section?

Tot: Yes, there are differences. Guitar and double bass have many improvisational sections, while the string quartet plays notated music. So, one of the challenges is finding the ways to interact with the written material while improvising. Also, a string group is capable of very subtle dynamics, while we guitarists are notorious for our infatuation with the volume knob; balanced dynamics take a lot of listening and trust. Finally, the tone colors that are substantially different from a typical jazz group inspire a somewhat different stylistic approach; this can occasionally result in phrasing subtleties that might not emerge within a more predictable instrumentation.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are there any artists or composers that you draw inspiration from when composing for this style of group?

Tot: Absolutely - as we know, nothing good happens in a vacuum, so hopefully some of my formative experiences are reflected in the writing. Since the music is fairly eclectic, so are my compositional influences. Some of them are the usual jazz suspects, while others form a fairly diverse bunch: Gil Evans, John Rutter, Jurre Haanstra, Bach, and Ennio Morricone, Astor Piazzola to mention a few.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: You will be performing on Sunday November 6th at PianoForte in Chicago. Is this the first time you have played there? Who is in the band and what can people expect to hear that afternoon?

Tot: This is our first performance at Pianoforte and we are very much looking forward to it. Pianoforte is an intimate, acoustically balanced space that is perfect for our music. The band members are Carmen Kassinger and Lisa Fako on violins, Cheryl Wilson on viola, Paula Kosower on cello, Rob Kassinger on double bass, and me on acoustic guitar. We will premiere a brand new piece (finished just a couple of days ago), in addition to other repertoire.

Chicago Jazz Magazine: After this performance what do you have coming up in the future?

Tot: Several other performances are in the works, and we should be recording a CD this spring.

Visit Zvonimir Tot's official website for more information.

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