The ‘Moanin’ Frogs’ … this chamber music ensemble name spawned some admittedly odd thoughts when I first scanned the Conservatory Concert Series program two months ago. Amphibian mating calls? Squishy bad ends for luckless, road crossing swamp dwellers? A weird typo?
Not these Frogs. The young, often exuberant, and remarkably accomplished saxophone sextet who delighted an SRO Sault Machine Shop crowd last Sunday defy – even redefine – what classic music and its boundaries typically mean for even the most devoted concert goers. Working from a program that mixed ragtime, show tunes, delicious Stevie Wonder pop, Mozart, and a show stopping version of Queen’s iconic Bohemian Rhapsody rock opera, the Frogs were at once subtle, powerful, and captivating.
I had confessed in an earlier Concert Series piece that my personal musical training (an overstatement on any level) had limited classical influences. But the saxophone is my all-time favourite instrument, an affection powered by 40 years of roots rocking sax lines from George Thorogood and his Destroyers band, featuring ‘Hurricane’ Hank Carter. Raucous, ballsy, swaggering 4-4 time riffs in one tune, and then another where the sax player gives you something so plaintive, sweet, and beautiful, that you simply marvel at how one instrument can inspire such amazingly different human emotions.
Chatting with the Frogs prior to their Sunday afternoon rehearsal, we talked about traditional classical musical boundaries, and the hard to avoid impression that for many, this is an elitist world. Convention often seems to rule, a form over substance vibe prevailing at times. Without denying the undoubted brilliance, command, and unswerving commitment to the craft, many classical music artists – and their audiences – do not appear all that troubled by the ‘we are just a little better than you’ connotation.
It is here that our pre-concert interview provided some insights that truly armed me with an ability to appreciate what the Frogs really delivered at the Machine Shop later that night. These musicians may be part of the much analysed millennial demographic, but as their bios collectively confirm, its takes far more than just charm, and ‘showing up’, to attain first rank University music school professor status, wonderful international reviews, membership in other well-regarded classical music ensembles, and still growing reputations within a demanding global craft, as these Frogs can claim. They take immense individual, and collective pride in coming from the ‘pure’ classical saxophone tradition, with its emphasis placed on musical rigour, practice discipline, and the pursuit of music perfection.
Without consciously trying to break down boundaries, the Frogs also expertly reinterpret and refine the pieces drawn from so many different musical highways and byways. They plainly have a lot of fun doing it, with an irrepressible showmanship that added a little something on Sunday night. For me, an unexpected highlight was ‘Danny Boy’, the Irish ballad standard brutalised every St. Patrick’s Day in every local bar, likely anywhere. Except here – where the six gorgeous saxophones gave way near the end to six Frogs singing beautifully a capella, bathed in the green stage lights.
And the ‘Moanin’ Frogs’ name? Its a modern day mash up, part ‘Bull Frog Blues’, a 1928 standard written by black Delta bluesmen William Harris, and Walter ‘Buddy Boy’ Hawkins, combined with ‘That Moaning Saxophone Rag’, made famous by the Six Brown Brothers. Their 1920s era New York vaudeville act originated in (of all unexpected places!) …. Lindsay, Ontario. The Frogs received a standing ovation from the Sault faithful when this terrific performance concluded, a nice extension of the 28-year Concert Series tradition, audience appreciation that summed up the entire evening for me. If this is classical music – bring it on!
The Moanin’ Frogs, their recordings, upcoming performances, and an entertaining, well-made sizzle reel are found at www.themoaninfrogs.com.