Two generations ago, it became avant-garde for musicians to retreat from touring, even from live performances altogether: Glenn Gould withdrew to the studio, and The Beatles, Brian Eno, XTC, Kate Bush and others followed suit, rarely, if ever, playing live. Even saxophonist Sonny Rollins, a great showman, retired from performance several times.
Brooklyn-based group PROJECT Trio, which works in a similarly adventurous tradition, does things entirely the opposite. The members don’t hole up for months in a small, acoustically perfect room to paint their masterpiece — or hide out in the green room until the curtain parts a few minutes past 8. Rather, they move into each city or town as if they are invading a small country.
“We might go on a tour of six cities,” says Peter Seymour, the group’s double-bassist and manager. “We wake up at 7 a.m., we go to the high school, to the elementary school. … We break early and go somewhere else.” They might end up somewhere unpredictable: In Russia, they made a stop at an orphanage for the musically gifted before culminating at the local concert hall. And sometimes, it’s not over even then: For months, they played a cabaret set that started at 1 a.m., sometimes after hitting a few schools. On a busy day, they might play four or five shows of various types and durations — with vigorous performances of songs by Charles Mingus, Tchaikovsky and Guns N’ Roses as well as their originals — before passing out.
Audiences who’ve seen the group perform — whether in a subway car or symphony hall or basketball stadium — know what its impact is like.
“That’s how we’re able to thrive and make our tours profitable,” Seymour says. “I love to perform, and I think that comes across. We’re not just playing the music — we’re there to engage.”
Audiences who’ve seen the group perform — whether in a subway car or symphony hall or basketball stadium — know what its impact is like. In less than a decade together, PROJECT Trio has performed on four continents and in more than 40 American states.
Mark McCoy, dean of DePauw’s school of music, saw the group recently with the Lafayette Symphony. “The older couple sitting next to me seemed to harrumph as they walked in, but soon they were bopping their heads. It was fun to watch that transformation.” McCoy brought them to the university as artists in residence in 2012. “It was because of the way they lit up the audience everywhere they went. I had not seen that kind of rock star reception for classical musicians,” he says. “To me they are the prototypical 21st-century musicians.”
The origins of PROJECT Trio are as unconventional as its choice of repertoire. Its three members — Seymour, flutist Greg Pattillo and cellist Eric Stephenson — met as undergraduates at the Cleveland Institute of Music and came together partly because of a varied taste in music. Seymour was into Mahler, Louis Armstrong’s records with Ella Fitzgerald and melodic rap groups like De La Soul. Pattillo worshipped Beethoven and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, while Stephenson dug Bartok and Radiohead.
The three stayed in touch as they went their separate ways after graduation, and they all pursued careers in music. But they weren’t terribly fulfilled. “The orchestra world felt a little stifling creatively,” Seymour says of the years between 2001 and ’06. “We knew that we wanted more. We always knew our idea would be a high-energy, high-octane chamber music — putting together the classical music we liked with the energy of pop culture.”
When two of them found themselves at the Colorado Music Festival one summer, they decided to form a group that got together to play a few times a year, despite their geographical distance. By 2007, Pattillo and Stephenson were both living near New York, and played together on the city’s subway, with Pattillo’s beatbox flute bringing hip-hop’s drive to Stephenson’s cello. (“The two musicians played a set of original songs and jazz standards for about 30 minutes,” a New York Times article reported, “briefly stopping when a custodian asked them to move so that he could replace the bag in the trash can behind them.”) Around the same time, Pattillo’s YouTube video of the Inspector Gadget theme song drew millions of hits.
That same year, Seymour moved to New York, and the trio was complete. It only made sense that the group would play originals and covers in a style as broad and eclectic as their own taste, like a gypsy-jazz tribute to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. “We love every style of music,” Seymour says, “and we know most people out there do, too.”
McCoy calls the group more than the sum of its parts. “Peter is really outgoing, Greg is cool and laid back — and Eric, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him speak from the stage. Together, they project this infectious joy.”
PROJECT Trio is not only musically unorthodox, it is economically independent as well. The two aspects are related. Seymour, who manages, books and tour-manages the band himself, says it allows them to make their own creative decisions. “People have been playing music for thousands of years,” he says. “But we’re at a unique place now; you can do a lot of this by yourself.”
PROJECT Trio is not only musically unorthodox, it is economically independent as well.
The group also runs its own record label and publishing company, Harmonyville Records. Revenues from recordings have been falling — often very steeply — since the dawn of the 21st century, but the group works hard on each album. DownBeat magazine praised one of the trio’s recordings for the way they “really dig into improvisation, groove and a no-boundaries attitude. … PROJECT Trio pulls inspiration from any musical direction that catches its collective ear.”
Says Seymour: “We don’t make millions off of [the records], but we do make 100 percent of the proceeds. I believe that the groups that are the most successful are doing most of their work themselves. Once you give up control to a record label or management company… I see a lot of people less happy. Nobody is going to work harder for you than you. And we’ve learned that the three of us are very powerful when we all work together.”
Seymour, whose father is a businessman, picked up the financial and managerial elements as he went along. “A big part of being a 21st-century musician, he says, “requires figuring out a work ethic and creatively solving problems. They’re intangible in business and applicable to music as well.”
It’s a time in which many musicians are struggling to adjust to new conditions, as technology and economic changes make old approaches obsolete. “The musical world is so splintered. We need to find a new way forward,” says McCoy. PROJECT Trio seems to have found one path; there are others. “The similarity between these groups is that they’re all exemplary musicians; they all have great chops. A lot of people from the established world think [innovation] is a way of dressing up shoddy musicianship — putting lipstick on a pig.” It’s not. “What hasn’t changed is that you still have to be really great.”
The future for PROJECT Trio looks a lot like the past but bigger and better, Seymour hopes. “We want to push ourselves to find new ways to get our music out there,” he says. They run music camps in the summer, and they hope to get long-term residencies during the academic year and to maintain their mix of venues and repertoire.
The trick is to balance the broader vision with getting to the airport on time. “While we have long-term goals for creative projects, we also need to deal with the day-to-day logistics,” Seymour says. “Right now we’re booked solid.”