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There's always room for cello: Jane Scarpantoni & Erica Quitzow by Peter Aaron

Most closely associated with European classical music, the cello is descended from the ninth-century lira, making it one of the longest-serving instruments in the arsenal. It is, however, a relative newcomer to the rock world. Yes, it was used in the string sections on dozens of 1960s Phil Spector-produced hits, and after that by the Beatles and the acts they inspired, most famously ELO. But it hasn’t been until fairly recently that the cello really began to make its way out of the conservatories, philharmonic halls, and high-end studios and into gritty rock ‘n’ roll clubs. And even now, seeing one of the delicate, four-string, bowed instruments in such a setting is still far from commonplace; these days you’re more likely to stumble across someone playing the back-in-vogue ukulele. But in the Hudson Valley we’re lucky enough to have two of the contemporary rock scene’s most adventurous cellists: Jan Scarpantoni and Erica Quitzow.

“When I was seven years old the cello was one of the instruments they were teaching in the school music program,” recalls Palenville’s Scarpantoni, who grew up in Nanuet. “It was like a mystery, I was really drawn to it.” By her teens she’d enrolled at the prestigious New York State Summer School of the Arts’ (NYSSA) School of Orchestral Studies, which saw her perform at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with the New York City Ballet, at Carnegie Hall, and at distinguished venues across Europe. From there it was supposed to be Julliard Prep, but Scarpantoni changed her mind.

“I didn’t like a lot of things about how classical people are trained,” she says. “It can be very rigid and competitive. I liked classical music, but I was more into rock.” She attended Colgate University (“I made sure they had a good cello teacher”) before moving to the indie-rock hotbed of Hoboken, New Jersey, in the early 1980s. There she shook off her paper-trained background, discovering improvisation and helped form the band Tiny Lights. While the group never cracked the big time, its innovative brand of alternative chamber rock proved influential and made Scarpantoni the first-call cellist of the New York underground. And among the first to come calling was saxophonist John Lurie, who tapped her for his band, the Lounge Lizards, with whom she would serve for 10 years.

Playing with Lurie brought Scarpantoni even more attention, making her resume as an in-demand studio and live player and arranger into a real neck-snapper; since then she’s toured and played on hit albums by R.E.M., Bob Mould, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, 10,000 Maniacs, the Indigo Girls, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and others. Between her appearances on Patti Smith’s Gone Again (Arista) and Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (Sony Music), Scarpantoni signed on with her most steady employer since her Lounge Lizards days: Lou Reed.

“I was a huge Velvet Underground fan growing up, so it’s a dream come true,” gushes Scarpantoni, who performs live with Reed and worked on 2003’s The Raven (Sire Records) and 2004’s Animal Serenade (Warner Bros.). Most recently Scarpantoni, who moved to the area after meeting her boyfriend, musician and producer Duke McVinnie, has contributed to local avant-folkster Kat Larios’s Bathos in Aqua (Safety Clyde Records) and Martha Wainwright’s Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris (V2 Records).

Erica Quitzow is the Catskills’ other rock-cello queen—though she admits the instrument is not her first. “I’ve been playing violin since I was six, but as a cellist I’m totally self-taught,” says Quitzow, who was raised in Berkeley, California, and also plays keyboards, guitar, and bass. “When I was in my early twenties someone gave me a cello. It was inspiring, because I found I could get all of these amazing sounds out of it.” Before moving to New Paltz she played in West Coast bands Heavy Pebble and Inner, and did her Manhattan tenure, performing solo at venues like Wetlands and CBGB Gallery. As the leader of the amorphous “band” that bears her last name, she’s been releasing music since 2004, most of it recorded at Young Love, the home studio she shares with her boyfriend, Setting Sun’s Gary Levitt, another musician-producer (see the December 2007/January 2008 issue of Roll).

Although Quitzow’s played in the Woodstock Chamber Orchestra and was exposed to classical music at a young age, like Scarpantoni she counts herself as a renegade from the conservatory. “To me formal training seems contrary to making art,” she says. “It’s about worshipping discipline, less about really expressing one’s true self.” Among her chief influences on the instrument she cites seminal chamber-rock trio Rasputina, Cursive’s Gretta Cohn, English cellist Jacqueline du Pre, and Topu Lyo, whose band Live Footage has an upcoming release on Quitzow and Levitt’s Young Love imprint; on the way as well from the label this spring is the third Quitzow album, Juice Water, and the fourth by Setting Sun, Fantasurreal. Also like Scarpantoni, Quitzow lends her strings to others, albeit on a local level; in addition to Setting Sun’s records, she’s worked on discs by Sarah Perrotta, Oryan, and others.

Having recently featured on the soundtrack of TV’s “Gossip Girl,” Quitzow is currently gearing up for her second European tour. Even though it’s not that much bigger than a guitar, one still wonders if touring with a cello has its share of, er, unwieldy moments. “Sometimes, but I guess it’s better than dragging around a double bass or an upright harp,” she says with a laugh. “Really, it’s kinda like having a friend. A buddy.”

Jane Scarpantoni and Duke McVinnie will play with Voodelic at the High Falls Cafe on February 27; www.highfallscafe.com. Quitzow’s Juice Water will be released on Young Love Records (via Red Eye Distribution) in May; www.myspace.com/quitzow.



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