Time for Three brings classical-bluegrass-anything fusion to World Café Live

Time for Three, which formed at the Curtis Institute, has added vocalists on their latest self-titled release.
Time for Three, which formed at the Curtis Institute, has added vocalists on their latest self-titled release. (LEANN MUELLER)
Posted: July 28, 2014

Older but hopefully not too terribly wiser, Time for Three has landed.

Fourteen years since its casual beginnings at the Curtis Institute, the string trio now has the major recording deal of its dreams, and (the members hope) the kind of support that knows how to showcase a classically trained bluegrassy trio with ever-evolving taste for musical fusion.

Perhaps the most dramatic evolution yet is heard within seconds on the new album, titled Time for Three, with an added, strongly pulsating rhythm section. Although the members - violinists Zachary De Pue and Nicolas Kendall, and bassist Ranaan Meyer - remain their recognizable selves, the landscape around them has changed. That change did not happen without - ahem - discussion.

"I've always been very vocal about being a trio and using our imagination as much as we can within the two violins and bass instrumentation," said Meyer. But other members - and the new album's producer and label - felt differently.

The album is the flagship release for the new Universal Music Classics label, which promises to give an American accent to the conglomerate that includes Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. For the occasion, Time for Three expanded temporarily on the new recording to include guest stars, most significantly vocalists.

The group's live show on Wednesday at World Café Live will feature only the core members. But the idea of going beyond the usual lineup is clearly aimed at capturing an audience that might not normally be drawn to all-instrumental music.

"We've known for years in this commercial world that the hook is having a singer, and we don't sing," said violinist Kendall. "It was time to be headed in this direction. I think the rest of the team really saw how it could open doors for us."

The group's repertoire has always included songs - such as their own arrangements of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" - plus inner references to a wide range of music. In fact, group members have often been puzzled by outsiders describing them as a bluegrass band. That's likely to happen much less after this wider-reaching album, which acknowledges Latin and even tango influences.

"They love collaborative work. They love it when you put unexpected things together, that throw off sparks," said Elizabeth Sobol, formerly of IMG Artists and now president and CEO of Universal Music Classics. "This record speaks to that."

The disc sails seamlessly through genres in typical Time for Three style. A Chopin ballade morphs fluidly into the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." J.S. Bach's famous Chaconne is transformed into what sounds like a highly sophisticated jam, yet remains strangely unchanged.

Less typically, saxophonist Branford Marsalis is featured on a Meyer/Kendall song titled "Queen of Voodoo." An arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise features cellist Alisa Weilerstein. "Danny Boy" arrives on this disc in a highly personal arrangement - Time for Three has never been against folk or roots - with the vocal duo Lily & Madeleine.

The biggest departure is the semi-whispered Simon and Garfunkel-esque vocals of Joshua Radin, heard on four songs he authored. His presence may be the ticket to a larger public, although older Time for Three admirers may be less delighted.

"It's a double-edged sword," admits Sobol. "You can cut the message into too many pieces. You can end up with very small pieces of pie . . . but do the artists believe in it? Is it compelling to listen to?"

Such questions are hardly new to Time for Three. "There's always been this centrifugal force between the three of us," says Kendall. "When we've been most successful, we've met in the middle."

And yes, Meyer ultimately endorsed the group's current approach.

And whether the recording's guests are physically present or not (some will drop into Time for Three concerts, as convenience allows), they have left the group more confidently casting a wider musical net. "We're not Latin jazz players," says De Pue, "but we love to live in that world."

Time for Three's breakout appearance came in 2003, when the players improvised bluegrass one night when a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Beethoven's Ninth was delayed by a power failure at the Mann Center. Since then, Time for Three has represented a new generation of classical musicians that is anything but sealed off from vernacular music. Kendall, for one, once played in a drumming ensemble on the streets of Washington, D.C., where he grew up. Meyer grew up in the Philadelphia area with a jazz background. De Pue grew up playing fiddle music in Ohio.

Yet for all of the group's ebullient, freewheeling image, it has always proceeded with great deliberation. Musical fusion - not to be confused with less-exalted "crossover" - requires trial and error. Time for Three has scrapped at least two albums - one reason that they go years without releasing anything, the last disc being 3 Fervent Travelers in 2010.

The group gave over one season, 2006-07, to almost nothing but live dates. Also around that time, with the recording industry in a difficult transition from CDs to digital files, major deals were discussed but were financially weighted almost entirely toward the label. "Everybody was flailing around and trying to stay in the business," said Kendall. "Mostly, they were these '360 deals,' where they [the label] took a piece of everything."

Although the group continues playing regularly, with a minimum of 30 concerts a year - including Concerto 4-3, written for them by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon - other work takes up their time. Truth is, the members aren't kids anymore (as in their mid-30s). Violinist De Pue became concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. Meyer, still based locally in Cherry Hill with his wife Emily, has developed a comprehensive curriculum for bassists.. Kendall, more or less based in Washington, plays with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra and the Dryden Quartet. All have been seriously involved in outreach, Time for Three having extended residencies with the Indianapolis Symphony and Kendall with a series of National Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Rock-star success may still be in the cards, but it's hardly essential to the group's existence, says Meyer. "We're family. And that's for better or for worse," he says. "As brothers, we can get into our tiffs, but we still feel that we share the same bloodline. Our goal is to be in for the long haul. It's still 95 percent fun."


CONCERT

Time for Three

8 p.m. Wednesday at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St.

Tickets: $20.

Information: 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com


dstearns@phillynews.com

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