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Taking Flight

Spanish Fly

Michael Macroce

Totally Tubular: (left to right) Marcos Rojas, Dave Tronzo and Steven Bernstein.

Spanish Fly creates tomorrow's sounds from today's instruments

By Harvey Pekar

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein, slide guitarist David Tronzo and tubaist Marcus Rojas--collectively known as Spanish Fly--are among the most in-demand musicians today on their respective instruments.

Among them, they've performed everything from gutty blues and rock to classical music. Yet each member of the trio considers Fly the most important group in which he performs. Spanish Fly's just-issued CD, Fly by Night (Accurate), justifies their enthusiasm.

This may be the first tuba, slide guitar, trumpet trio ever. The instrumentation alone ensures a unique sound. Beyond the novelty, however, each of the players is highly skilled.

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Spanish Fly's online.

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Bernstein's been the musical director for the Lounge Lizards and the Kansas City Band, which he got into after working on the soundtrack of Robert Altman's Kansas City. Rojas has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, Henry Threadgill's Very Very Circus, Ray Charles and David Byrne. Slide guitar is generally associated with blues, but Tronzo often plays in avant-garde contexts, performing with John Cale, Leni Stern and David Bowie, as well as with his own trio.

Spanish Fly began playing in 1993 at New York's Knitting Factory, where each member had appeared in other groups. It attracted the attention of the influential Hal Wilner, who produced the trio's first album. After hearing Spanish Fly, Wilner remarked, "It was like being in the womb of music. They made the three instruments sound like one working machine."

Inventing Sounds

EACH OF THE MEN solos, but rarely at length, because a great deal of emphasis is placed on collective improvisation. Ensemble playing is extremely important to him, Bernstein says: "I want to sound like the third tenor in a big band or a rhythm guitar in an R&B group or Sly Stone singing. I want to get into something different. I'm hearing all these things in my head that may not be trumpet-related. That's why I use all these mutes. Traditionally trumpets have been used as a solo instrument. I'm more group-oriented."

Bernstein has also pioneered the use of the slide trumpet, which he employs most often with his other group, Steven Bernstein's Sex Mob.

Rojas, who may be the best all-around tuba player in the world, crusades on behalf of the instrument's flexibility and rich timbre. "I want to make great music that many people will hear," he says. "The tuba does that, although most people don't realize it. Using it as a rhythm instrument is in my blood; I grew up listening to Latin music."

Rojas sings into his tuba, employs multiphonics and half-valved tones, taps on his horn like a drum and often makes sounds that most listeners don't believe it can produce. Tronzo also invents techniques, using cups, spoons and an ashtray--and rubbing his guitar against a chair-- to get unique sounds.

Among them Rojas, Bernstein and Tronzo have a huge musical frame of reference and draw from many genres. Spanish Fly is a project-oriented group, as Fly by Night indicates. Choreographer Christopher d'Amboise commissioned the album for a ballet of the same name, which was performed a dozen times by the San Francisco Ballet.

Like other Spanish Fly pieces, Fly by Night was composed in an unusual manner, with group members bringing sketchy ideas in to rehearsal, then combining, altering or reworking them. The composition projects a variety of moods and is lucidly constructed.

All three trio members value spontaneity and want to make music they couldn't produce with anyone else. Says Rojas, "We're not doing a gig just to do a gig. Sometimes we just show up and play; we don't talk. I happen to get lost if I know where I'm going."


Spanish Fly performs Monday (March 17) at 8 and 10pm; Yoshi's, 6030 Claremont Avenue, Oakland; tickets are $7; 510-652-9200. Also Tuesday (March 18) at 10pm at the Elbo Room, 647 Valencia St., San Francisco; tickets are $4; 415/552-7788. Also Saturday (March 22) at 2pm at the Oakland Museum of California's James Moore Theatre, 1000 Oak St., Oakland; admission is free; 510-238-2200.

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