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String theory

Saxophonist Michael Zsoldos takes on masterworks by Ben Webster, with the help of some local virtuosos, at VJC

Tickets for Under the Radar at VJC are $20 to $40 general admission, $15 for student, and are available at the door, In the Moment in Brattleboro, online at, or reserved by phone at 802-254-9088.

BRATTLEBORO—“I love a musical challenge,” says saxophonist Michael Zsoldos.

That may explain why Zsoldos has painstakingly transcribed the unpublished string arrangement from Ben Webster’s “Music for Loving” and “Music with Feeling.”

Ralph Burns, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Richards created lush string accompaniments for the legendary jazz tenor saxophonist on two albums that Webster made in the mid-1950s. Michael Zsoldos studied these recordings and transcribed the string-writing as a self-prescribed assignment to learn from the masters he wished to emulate.

On March 26, at 8 p.m., at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, Zsoldos performs Under the Radar, a concert that includes these transcriptions of string quartet arrangements with some of New England’s top string players and a rhythm section including pianist Miro Sprague.

Co-sponsored by Norman Cohen in honor of Florence Gerstin, and by violin builder Doug Cox, this performance will feature “the big breathy sound of Ben Webster’s tenor saxophone over the tapestry of exquisitely arranged strings,” as well as a premiere of an original Zsoldos composition employing these techniques.

Under the Radar for VJC was never intended to be made public.

“Michael transcribed much of Ben Webster with Strings albums simply in order to develop his own skills as a string arranger: awesome!” says VJC Artistic Director Eugene Uman.

The string arrangements for the two Webster albums were never published.

“If they ever were written out, the parts were not available for me,” says Zsoldos. “The string arrangement for these albums are breathtaking, so I figured I could take a lesson from them.”

Zsoldos carefully wrote out these string parts note by note. “I did it to strengthen my ear as an orchestrator and to create something to do with my string playing friends,” Zsoldos adds.

Both on the Webster records and in Zsoldos’ arrangements of them, eight musicians are used: the four members of a string quartet, a bass player, pianist, drummer, and saxophonist.

“The strings are identical to the records,” Zsoldos says. “The jazz soloists, however, are not. Much as Webster did on the original records, the jazz artist should improvise as he or she is accompanied by this string background.”

Turning these transcriptions into a public concert came about when Zsoldos drove down to New York City with Uman for sessions with his Convergence Project, of which Zsoldos is a member.

“I told Eugene about my endeavor,” says Zsoldos. “He said, ‘Wow, that sounds interesting, can I program it next season at VJC?

“Michael Zsoldos really one of the top saxophonists in the state, if not the top saxophonist,” says Uman.

“I was hardly an overnight success,” admits Zsoldos. “I was no wunderkind. I had to work very hard to get where I am. I believe it is a great gift to be a musician, and I am eager to be part of what I do, whether it be playing or arranging. ”

Michael Zsoldos was introduced to music through his father’s vast record collection, which included the music of Charlie Parker, Felix Mendelssohn, Billie Holiday, the Beatles, and Glenn Miller.

“The first piece that really excited me was Glenn Miller’s swing classic, In the Mood,” he says.

When Zsoldos was 10, he took up, of all instruments, the saxophone. But perhaps that is not all that unusual.

“Saxophones remain wildly popular among 10-year-olds,” says Zsoldos. “In school band, they still are the first to be grabbed up of all wind instruments, other than perhaps the flute.

“The saxophone is actually a family of wind instruments. It was invented in 1841, making it the most modern wind instrument in the orchestra. It was an immensely popular instrument, and at at one time a company in Indiana produced 10,000 to 15,000 saxophones a year.

“Its inventor, Adolphe Sax, considered it to be a very versatile instrument, and there were entire saxophone orchestras. In the early part of the last century you could find traveling all-girl and all-male saxophone orchestras, which played everything from classical to ragtime. Nonetheless, you could say that the saxophone came of age in the birth of jazz.”

Zsoldos attended the Eastman School of Music, where he studied classical and jazz saxophone with Ramon Ricker. He later studied with Andrew Speight and Branford Marsalis at Michigan State University and has a master’s degree in music theory.

“The saxophone has strong classical literature written in the late 19th through the 21st century,” Zsoldos says. “And there are other styles of music that have fruitfully employed the saxophone. The saxophone is a national instrument in Brazil, and its music fuses brass rhythms with European harmony.

“This is through-composed music, but also has moments of improvisation, which I love. That’s the tradition from which composers like Antonio Jobim come. And on the other hand, you have my saxophone playing with Uman’s Convergence Project, which combines Colombian folkloric with American harmonic sensibility.”

Zsoldos’s passion for teaching led him back to Vermont. He is currently on the teaching faculties of the University of Vermont, Interplay Jazz Camp, and Festival Internazionale Del Sassofono in Faenza, Italy. He has conducted the District Jazz Bands in Vermont districts IV, V, and VI, and has been a repeat clinician for the Vermont and Maine Music Educators Associations.

“I teach the saxophone for all kinds of students, those into jazz and others into classical, for beginners as well as those familiar with the intricacies of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter,” he says.

Zsoldos is also a composer. His original score is featured in the award-winning documentary “Birdsong and Coffee”: A Wake Up Call,” which has aired both on PBS and Link TV.

Since 2004, Zsoldos has been a performer and instrumental arranger for the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir and Dartmouth Idol, featuring Walt Cunningham. Zsoldos’ playing and arranging can be heard on Cunningham’s 2010 album When All God’s Children.

In 2008, they performed before capacity crowds at the Chicago House of Blues and Jazz at Lincoln Center. In January 2009, the choir shared the stage with Bebe Winans, Carole King, and Yolanda Adams at President Barack Obama’s Inauguration festivities.

“I like working with both Dartmouth’s Gospel Choir and Idol because it increases my chops,” he says. “I am plugged into three areas of my musical life: as an educator, in the studio, and arranging and preparing Dartmouth Gospel and Idol. Since I try to get better and better, to develop as a composer, arranger and saxophonist, all the facets of my musical life work together to help me in this goal. I love everything I do. Being connected to so many diverse musical scenes keeps me on my toes.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #349 (Wednesday, March 23, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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