Good Neighbors

Jim Connolly and the Gove County String Quartet

At Center Stage Theater, Sunday, July 2.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

Some time early in Sunday night’s performance, Jim Connolly took responsibility for announcing the program from the stage. “We didn’t do a program,” he said. “I am the program.” And so he was.

As leader and composer for the entire evening, Connolly was the program and the life of the party. His music — in this instance written mostly for a string quartet consisting of bass (Connolly), viola (Kirsten Monke), and violins (Sally Barr and Laura Hackstein) — puts serious compositional ideas and talent to work producing pleasure, and lots of it. If you had to locate it on a musical map, you might look for Connolly’s sound somewhere south of classical and west of jazz, out where cartoon eccentrics like Raymond Scott and oversized Romantics like Charles Mingus meet and celebrate. Connolly dedicated the evening to the memory of UCSB philosophy professor Hubert Schwyzer, a cellist and an avid supporter of chamber music.

Connolly’s elegant, sensuous bass-playing is the glue that holds all of Gove County together. Whether he is propelling the entire ensemble with a plucked walking figure, or providing the warm buzzing support for beautiful melodic variations, his sound remains unique and instantly recognizable. In addition to playing a lovely double bass, Connolly has written a significant quantity of string quartet music, and one of the many virtues of this evening was that we got to hear a substantial helping of it. With several pieces both before and after the intermission, the Gove County String Quartet was clearly the focus of the program. The progression was from dark and Romantic, with a nod to Lennon and McCartney, to light and nimble, as in a wonderfully witty arrangement of the theme song from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood called “Why Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

The evening’s finale came when the quartet was joined onstage by even more friends of Jim for something he calls the Gove County Philharmonic. This expanded group allowed Connolly to explore textures and tempos more suited to the clarinet, piano, and even accordion. The Philharmonic numbers retained Connolly’s funky stamp of individuality, and his bass-playing became, if possible, even more swinging and irresistible. Gove County may be in Kansas, but we are lucky that, thanks to Jim Connolly, Santa Barbara can bask in a Gove County state of mind.

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