Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: New York ensemble’s local roots feed fascinating tales


PHOTO: Rose & the Nightingale consists of, from left, Leala Cyr, Sara Caswell, Jody Redhage and Laila Biali. www.ariuzico.com photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The musical quartet Rose & the Nightingale is like a rose – so many petals opening to tell so many stories.

The jazz group that performs original compositions is about to start a week-long adventure in Green Bay that includes public appearances along with workshops for youngsters as well as university students.

Key in this visit is Leala Cyr, a Pulaski native who sings and plays trumpet in the group, which works out of New York City. Leala Cyr’s associations led to the residency that will bring the other musicians in the group to the Green Bay area for the first time.

“I’m really excited to show them around and buy them all a cheesehead,” she says with a big laugh. Also on the agenda: Lambeau Field, cheese curds, dinner at Chives and meeting Leala Cyr’s family and friends.

The group is here as the result of winning the 2013 Chamber Music America Jazz Residency Partnership Grant. Activities in and around that include:


The week (highlights)

- A “Poetry Takes Flight Through Song” workshop with K-8 students of the Wisconsin International School. After a visit to the Green Bay Botanical Garden, students will write haiku inspired by their visit. Leala Cyr says, “Throughout the week, we are going to be doing workshops with the kids to turn the haikus into songs. On Saturday (May 3 at the botanical garden), some of the students are going to premiere their songs that they wrote with us during the week. Half of the program will be the kids premiering their songs, and half will be our concert.” Admission is free to the performance in the gardens’ Cornerstone Foundation Hall.

- A performance at noon Tuesday, April 29, in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Student Union. The group also will be part of master classes at UWGB, which Leala Cyr attended.

- A public concert at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1, by Rose & the Nightingale as part of UWGB’s “360˚ Thursdays” series. Leala Cyr says, “The program is just going to be us, so it’ll be our full song cycle, ‘Spirit of the Garden’,” which is the name of the album and overall project inspired by group leader Jody Redhage. Donations will be accepted for the concert in Fort Howard Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts on campus. The performance will include a discussion of the music.

- A public concert at 7 p.m. May 3 at the Encore Ballroom in Florence with Rose & the Nightingale, made up of Jody Redhage, cello and voice; Sara Caswell, violin; Laila Biali, voice and piano; and Leala Cyr, voice and trumpet.


Now to look at some of the rose petals…

The stem of the group Rose & the Nightingale is jazz vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding, a relatively new star on the scene. Leala Cyr, Jody Redhage and Sara Caswell toured with Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society. Leala Cyr says, “That’s when Jody started getting the idea of putting her own band together and using our voices. She really wanted a pianist who could sing, and she was recommended Laila Biala by Laila’s  husband, who did a lot of the mixing and engineering for Jody’s early albums.”

Esperanza Spalding has won four Grammy Awards, including the Best New Artist Award in 2011. Essentially, members of Rose and the Nightingale are friends/colleagues of Esperanza Spalding.

After attending UWGB, Leala Cyr moved on to the Berklee College of Music, a jazz haven in Boston, Massachusetts.

Leala Cyr says, “Esperanza I met while I was going to the Berklee College of Music. Just as she was graduating, we met. I just asked her, ‘Hey, you want to play a gig with us?’ And she was, ‘Yeah, sure.’ The friendship started from there. After that, I was back in Wisconsin and we were planning on moving out to New York. I can’t remember how the conversation started, but somehow she said, ‘Well, I need roommates,’ so I ended up living with her. For a year and a half, we were roommates and we just became really close friends. And then Ricardo (Vogt, Leala Cyr’s longtime partner, a guitarist) went on tour with her, and after that I went on tour with her. That’s kind of how. We were just friends. Ricardo went on tour with her first in a quartet, and then after that project was finished, I went on tour with her with Chamber Music Society and Radio Music Society. And halfway through the Radio Music Society tour, Ricardo joined the group as well. So we were both in the group.”

How did it come to be that Esperanza Spalding was interested in a vocalist who plays trumpet? How does that work?

“The truth is she called me and she said, ‘You know, I really need a trumpet player, and I really need a background vocalist, but I can’t afford both. So, are you up for the challenge?’ And I said, ‘Of course, I am.’

“The past few years for me have been really crazy because I was on the road with Esperanza. So I have been to all the corners of the world – South Africa, Japan, Amsterdam, all over the United States. It’s really been eye opening and amazing, and I’ve seen some beautiful places in the world, and being able to play music there has been really incredible. I’ve been, with Rose & the Nightingale, playing in the middle of the mountains in beautiful gardens. It’s been beautiful. So it’s just been really insane. I’ve really been having a lot of fun the past couple of years.”

Imagine: You go to another country and you walk out on stage, and there’s an audience there. That has to be interesting – Where did these people come from? How do they know me?

Leala Cyr says, “Exactly. It’s actually very crazy. For some reason, Esperanza has a huge fan base, especially overseas. When we go to Europe, almost all the shows would be sold out, absolutely sold out. And the crowds are the best, in Europe. They really appreciate the music there, and we’d see them singing along. It’s really crazy. I mean, she’s getting bigger and bigger here, but then I’ve see it the United States sometimes jazz music sometimes, you know, people just get into it as much as pop music now days. But when we go over to Europe, it’s really, really insane. People love the music, and they love her. Playing for sold-out crowds is a gift.”

The venues have been fascinating.

Leala Cyr says, “Playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival was incredible. It’s one of the most prestigious festivals that happens every year, and that was really exciting. We played at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. That was incredible as well. So many wonderful people have played there – to be outside – that was really great. In Vienne, France, we played in an outdoor theater, Theatre Antique, an amphitheater made of stone steps that were really steep, and it was in the side of a mountain.”

Basically, Esperanza Spalding stepped out of college into the spotlight. How did she manage to take off?

Leala Cyr says, “She is an amazing musician. She works extremely hard. When I was living with her, I really got to see that. She uses every minute of her day productively, whether if it’s sitting at the piano and writing new songs or playing crazy etudes on her bass, she works really hard and she really earns that spot. But she’s also beautiful. For someone who looks like her and sounds like her and plays this huge instrument that’s just as tall as she is, that has something to do with it as well. And she’s also made wonderful friends along the way, and one of her closest friends actually is Prince. So she’s been making a lot of connections through him. She’s been playing with Stevie Wonder. It’s kind of word of mouth and people really learning who she is and hearing that she’s an excellent musician. But that’s why she’s blown up.”

Perhaps it’s only natural that a group such as Rose & the Nightingale would spin off from such a talent.

Leala Cyr says, “I have to say I really enjoy this project a lot because the music is really heartfelt. Jody is just such a loving person, and the music is really amazing because most of the lyrics are from living poets who write about nature and gardens, and she put most of those poems to music. Her vision was for us to play this music in botanic gardens. That’s what we’ve been trying to do, so that’s why we’re going to play at the Green Bay Botanical Garden while we’re here. We’ve played in many gardens on the West Coast and around the United States. Hopefully soon we’ll be playing overseas as well. All the music is about nature and gardens and outside and beauty, and it’s really heartfelt. I really love the project a lot, and she really uses all of our talents of all of us in the group. We all get to kind of shine, so it’s really great.”

The group’s grant from Chamber Music America came with the assist of Leala Cyr with another assist of a UWGB classmate of hers, Lisa Andre – today Lisa Borley, who performs with the Green Bay show group Let Me Be Frank Productions.

“Lisa is the one who connected me about a year ago when we first started talking about this. That’s kind of how it got started. And then, because I just knew so many people and places in the area, that’s when we got the idea of, well, maybe we can make a week out of it. And that’s how Jody wrote the grant. Jody had a very specific idea in mind. We did have a few connections beforehand, and then she wrote the grant and it all worked out.”

That Leala Cyr is in the group is serendipitous for the group to do what it wants to do.

“It’s really awesome. I really get to be myself. Jody lets me kind of be free. This first project was mostly Jody taking it on, but now all of four of us are kind forming a real group, like a partnership. So I’ve been writing songs and the other girls have been writing songs, so hopefully our next project will be a mix of everybody. Hopefully we’ll be recording an album next year called ‘Love Unbounded,’ which will be an album of love songs – all types of love. That’s in the works. That’s going to be my job now, to try to help Jody do that brunt of the work now that she has a little one (a baby son, Theo).”

The rose I’ve alluded to has more petals. Leala Cyr and Ricardo Vogt, who she met when both were students at UWGB, have an album well along in development.

Leala Cyr says, “Our album is in partnership with a Brazilian artist and singer, Milton Nascimento, who is really famous down there and played with Wayne Shorter; he played with everybody. He’s in his 70s, and he’s a Brazilian jazz legend. It’ll be the three of us, and it will be releasing this year.”

So the life style of a jazz musician is like jazz – kind of improvised as you go along.

“Yes, that’s exactly what it is. Your life is your work, and right now I’m just trying to improvise the best I can.”

A few more petals… How do playing trumpet and singing fit together? What is it about playing trumpet that might assist Leala Cyr in how she sings or how she thinks about singing?

“First of all, learning a trumpet, especially when I was young, really gave me an acute ear. Right now, my most prized possession is my ear. I’m able to hear things, and it really helps me to be in tune and also in improvising as a vocalist. Just learning an instrument first of all is going to help you do that. But also in listening to other trumpet players or transcribing trumpet solos, it transfers over into my singing. I love to improvise as a vocalist, so when I vocalize and improvise, it sounds like a horn. I’m imitating my horn sound. I think it overlaps really well and helps me as a musician. You know, sometimes people forget that singers are musicians. Most of us, anyway. Some of them, yes, aren’t. Some of us don’t get such a good rap. Because I do an instrument, because I was able to use both, really made me a better musician all around. And I was a little bit more respected because I was able to use that knowledge as a vocalist as well. And I’m able to read music. A lot of singers skip that part of it if they don’t learn an instrument when they’re younger. So I’m able to go in and read a piece of music because I can read trumpet music. So they really go hand in hand.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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