Fishtank Ensemble rocks DjangoFest NW

Posted in Festivals, Music, Spotlight

Whidbey Life Magazine editor
Sept. 21, 2013

I stayed out way too late last night at DjangoFest in Langley, because every performance is followed by a party and a “djam” somewhere around town, and at which the Django players always show up and play. So it’s hard to leave.

The thing about DjangoFest is that, even if you don’t know gypsy jazz music, you can be certain that all the musicians who are ever invited to perform there are going to be highly skilled in a blow-your-socks-off vein.

At Friday night’s opening show on the old middle school auditorium stage, the Fishtank Ensemble left me sockless.

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Fishtank Ensemble of Los Angleles, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Fishtank Ensemble website)

This Los Angeles band, led by Ursula Knudson on vocals, saw and violin, with Fabrice Martinez on violin/violintromba, Douglas “Douje” Smolens on guitar, and Djordje Stijepovic on bass, is so versatile in its musicianship, that it’s hard not to sit there with your mouth open from the sheer musical athleticism it takes to do what these people do on stage.

Knudson uses her voice in ways that echo the whistling beauty of her mad skills on the saw, hitting notes on the scale that seem humanly impossible to reach. Whether she’s singing with castanets in hand, playing her violin, dancing, making unbelievably delicate sounds on the saw or pulling out a tiny banjo that looks like a cousin to a ukulele, she is completely captivating. It helps too that she is gorgeous, and last night wore a fantastically cut, green dress. But the main revelation with this artist is that she uses her voice in ways that sets her apart from any other singer. She can conjure an old fashioned feminine quirkiness that makes you think of Betty Boop crossed with a style that recalls the soprano of Leo Delibes’ “Lakme.” But then she also uses these guttural sounds, “Heh, heh, heh… guck, guck, guck,” like a beat-boxer, only better and more old country and you become wowed all over again.

This band covers a combination of styles, from straight gypsy jazz Roma, or Eastern European folk songs, an old Greek love song; songs that remind you of your grandmother, and lullabies and weddings.  But then they turn it around and sound suddenly like some funky, modern jazz band blended with Bartok, and it’s like nothing else you’ve ever heard.

Knudson’s got this big bag of tricks from which she just keeps pulling skills and instruments, and your jaw just keeps dropping and your socks just keep coming off. But, it’s not a “trick.”  It’s skill, rhythm, spirit and musicianship. Basically, she’s a vocal and instrumental gymnast who should be in the musical Olympics, and she’s got a band of musical athletes supporting her.

I also nominate violinist Martinez for the Olympic team.  He did things with his instrument that I’d never seen before; like breaking off a string and making a sound like something rolling down the inside of large sewer pipe, or doing this “dueling” violin and saw thing with Knudson. Besides being innovative with his instruments, Martinez and the rest of the band were so completely in tune with what Knudson was doing, it went beyond natural gifts and practiced skills to the place where they were all so completely in tune with each other − every note, every movement, every call and answer of their instruments was like some great rhythmic dance and the audience just sits there, agape, getting all what makes music so worthwhile.

Finally, when Knudson introduces the band, all male, and herself, with her “I’m the girl” caveat, it’s the final sweetness, the cherry on top of what was a delicious, sweet and hugely satisfying hot fudge sundae of a concert.

John Jorgenson Quintet followed Fishtank Ensemble, and although I don’t have time to review that performance here, (Sorry, JJQ) it also blew me away. I could go on and on about the magnitude of excellence that comes to these stages, including Jorgenson’s expert guitar style, and his gracious smile and bows, along with the rest of his exquisite band (Rory Hoffman has uncanny ability to fly on that piano); it was all I needed to be happy.

My point is, there are still a couple of shows left to see at DjangoFest. And, although I don’t have time before it’s all over to review everything I’ve seen, I want to make the point that the musicianship at these performances makes it entirely worth the ticket.


Fapy Lafertin of gypsy jazz fame plays DjangoFest tonight at 8 p.m.

Tonight Fapy Lapertin performs with Tcha Limberger, Dave Kelbie, Simon Planting and Ryan Hoffman. Lapertin is probably the greatest of all the celebrated gypsy guitarists of today and the nearest thing to Django Reinhardt’s playing you can hear.

If you love music ─ any kind of music ─ don’t miss DjangoFest.

Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, Sept. 21

3 pm | LMS | $35 | $45 | $55

The New Hot Club of America with Gonzalo Bergara

Trio Dinicu with Tommy Davy

Saturday, Sept. 21

8 pm | LMS | $50 | $60 | $70

Headliner Fapy Lafertin with Tcha Limberger, Dave Kelbie, Simon Planting and Ryan Hoffman.

Sunday, Sept. 22

6 pm | LMS | $45 | $55 | $65

Djammin’ in Djangley with Fapy Lafertin, Tcha Limberger, Dave Kelbie, Simon Planting, Jason Anick and featuring Olli Soikkeli with surprise guests! 3 Cent Stamp.

Get TICKETS here. Visit the WICA’s website for more.



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