The Velvet Philharmonic
By Zach Powers
Find out what happens when gypsy jazz meets classical works on March 5.
I’m walking around the perimeter of Trinity United Methodist Church when I espy Jared Hall, keyboardist and accordionist for Velvet Caravan. The band has a rehearsal, and I’ve been invited to sit in. Not as a performer, mind you. I’m just there to listen and take a few notes for this. Jared guides me through one of the church’s side doors—I’ve been trying to find a way in for five or ten minutes—and leads me to the rehearsal space, the parish hall behind the church’s sanctuary.
Only half the band is there when I arrive. I don’t know if this proves the stereotype about musicians always being late, or disproves it because some of them are there already.
Ricardo Ochoa, the band’s violinist, bends over a piece of electronic equipment with a glowing screen. I’ll later learn that this is an in-ear monitor system, a recent acquisition, and a step up from the floor monitors most bands use on gigs. It’s also a symbol of how far the band has come.
“Not many groups in our genre have the capability or the opportunity to do something like this,” explains Ochoa, “so we’re lucky. We’re going to jump right in.”
For those who aren’t familiar with Velvet Caravan’s music, it’s an eclectic mix of high-energy genres rooted in gypsy jazz. From the works of Django Reinhardt to bluegrass to Latin, the band is happy to go wherever the mood takes them, as long as it’s fun. Their arrangements for full orchestra are no different, and they’re as concerned with their fellow musicians’ experience as they are about the listeners’.
“The challenge is to make it a fun and exciting show not only for the audience but also for the orchestra,” says Ochoa. “Especially with pops concerts, for the orchestra it’s usually a little bit boring. Our challenge has been how to engage the orchestra in our fun. You have to keep everybody entertained to make this experience work.”
High-end Honky Tonk
As we chat, the rest of the band filters in and sets up shop. Eric Dunn thumps out rich notes on his upright bass. Sasha Strunjas executes a series of blistering riffs on a classical guitar. Jared plunks out a few notes on the church’s out-of-tune upright piano. He cracks a joke about the intonation, but if there was ever a band that could make such a honky-tonk sound work with orchestra, it’s Velvet Caravan.
The band’s final member, Jesse Monkman sits astride a cajone—a box drum—behind an elaborate rack of cymbals and incidental percussion. Monkman and Ochoa have split duties arranging the band’s music for full orchestra. Both musicians have also contributed original compositions for the concert. For Ochoa, it’s his first orchestral piece.
“In this case, it is not the violinist who is nervous, it’s the composer. I don’t get nervous performing anymore, but there’s always that excitement that I hope I never lose. Those butterflies never go away. It keeps things fun and keeps me wanting to do more. Like jumping out of a plane. You’re always going to be excited about that. There’s a certain level of nervousness, but you become fearless.”
“Fearless” is a good word to describe the musicians in Velvet Caravan. It never seems to occur to them that even the most adventurous musical endeavors should be scary. They simply go out and play shows with passion and energy, and anybody lucky enough to see them live will take away a little bit of that excitement. I suspect that there will be an orchestra full of musicians just as excited to be playing with them, too.