The Blue Heron Trio is a jazz band in Dayton, Ohio. Elisha Frontz is their vocalist, Phil Myers plays saxophone and guitar, and Dave Santucci is on keyboard. Dayton Artists United had the pleasure of visiting with them in their studio at the Davis-Linden building.
DAU—You’ve been together 9 years. I’ve read your bio on your website, “three close friends came together,” tell me about that.
Phil—I guess it started with me. There was this gala at St. Christopher Church in Vandalia and the organizer approached me about kicking off the fundraiser with some music. “It would be great to have live jazz, he said.” I don’t know how he even knew I played an instrument, but I said yes and then I said, “Hey Dave, you busy.”
Dave—And there you go.
Phil—We played about a 30 minute set. It wasn’t too bad.
Dave—They asked us back the next year. We asked Elisha, “Do you want to sing? Do you like jazz?”
Elisha—I always loved jazz. I’d been wanting to do jazz forever. I’d been doing punk, and it was fun, but I’ve always loved jazz. I was thrilled.
Phil—We’d all been doing other stuff, performing in special projects with Nick Atkinson called ArtistPlaylist. Elisha and I were covering the Pixies album Doolittle when I asked her join Dave and I.
DAU—And now you’ve been together 9 years. Where did the name Blue Heron come from?
Dave—That was me. I was walking along the path by Carillion Park, along the river and I saw a heron flying and watched it land. The Great Blue Heron looks so majestic at a distance, and so crazy up close.
Elisha—That describes us.
DAU—Let’s talk about your first album, named for the band. It’s a great compilation of your best covers, but I want to talk about the original tune, 1913. It’s a gorgeous song, really evocative.
Elisha—Dave came up with the melody and the arrangement. He does this amazing sort of mumbly talk to fill in where the lyric goes.
Dave—I put the shape of the lyric there, you know, sort of counting syllables in the tune.
Elisha—Then I picked apart the mumbles and started to write down what I thought would fit in those spaces. At the time I was reading a book about the 1913 flood, because it was the 100-year anniversary. The book was written right after, about the experiences of people who were there. Patterson changed his entire factory space to accommodate flood refugees and to make rescue boats. I took inspiration from that.
Dave—So, when I went to work on the song, I was just thinking about the melody and filling in the lyrics, kind of loose.
Elisha—And I listened to it and wrote it out…”here’s what I think you said,” and I kind of polished the mumbles.
DAU—I like that “polished mumbles.”
Dave—The mumbles just give me a structure for the song. When coming up with a melody, if you just play it without an ear to how it will be sung, it can be difficult to connect the lyrics to the melody once you finally have them. I try to capture the spirit behind singing the lyrics, even if there aren’t actual words yet.
DAU—So you record yourself?
Elisha—Right, and then we decode the mumbles, fit the ideas together.
Phil –and build out the harmony.
DAU—and which of you does the background vocals?
Phil—both Dave and I.
DAU—And its been a long time between your first album and your second.
Elisha—Yes. It’s hard to justify putting out an album in a world where people stream music for free. But, it is very rewarding to have a really nice product.
Phil—That first album was —not rushed—but the project was put together fairly quickly. The first album was created so that we could get people acquainted with how we sound, what we do. We took a lot more time with the our second album, Other Side of the Tracks.
DAU—so it raises the bar?
Elisha—I think in general, we try to raise the bar all the time. Since we started Blue Heron Trio, each of us has sought more musical instruction. Dave did a lot of work in a local jazz studio, and Phil started taking vocal lessons.
Phil—That’s true. I realized if I was going to sing behind Elisha, I better not suck. And the harmonies on 1913 are kind of high. There at the beginning I approached it every time as if I might not make it.
Elisha—I am really proud of you. As we get older it’s harder to learn new information.
Phil—Elisha learned to play the bass.
Elisha—Yeah, I play on a few things.
DAU—So do you see any holes in your repertoire? I mean, I have a song list here.
Phil—Let me see it—oh we don’t play a bunch of these anymore. The Scientist—off the list; Tainted Love—off the list. The song list isn’t static. We each bring things we’d like to try. Like Round Midnight, or Rock songs converted to a jazz arrangement.
Elisha—No, so many people heckled us at concerts, yelling out “Freebird,” so we tried it once or twice—it didn’t feel good.
Dave—And it has to feel right. That is really why we do this. Some of the gigs feel really good. Like the one we had at a retirement home in Indiana that specialized in dementia care. The residents’ response was really fulfilling.
Elisha—and weddings. We like weddings.
Dave—There was one wedding where the couple had timed-out our sets and arranged digital music to play between our sets. Everything was timed-out and ran perfectly. It’s rare that things stay on schedule with a wedding. That was a great gig. And the groom was so happy that he cried.
DAU—Do you have to learn songs for weddings? Like “this is our song, will you play it.”
Elisha—Sometimes. We have done it.
Phil—Usually when people hire us, it’s because we already play a song they like.
Dave—looking at the song list, I don’t see any holes in our rep. I would like our music to take on a more modern approach. Arrange them in a more modern way. Like “Unforgettable, ” that’s a familiar song, but our arrangement is ours.
Elisha-It’s funny you should say that. When I am playing the original versions of the songs we have covered, sometimes my kids will say “Is that the original? I like yours better”. They could be flattering me, but they’re teenagers, so I take the compliments when they come.
Dave—When we decide on a song, I do a basic arrangement. I play with the things that capture my attention.
Elisha—Then we personalize it, sometimes unintentionally, by building around the parts that Dave has focused on.
Phil—I don’t— didn’t— know a lot of vocal jazz. I played sax in the army, most of what I’m familiar with is instrumental. I’d like to think that I approach the songs with a fresh perspective. I don’t have to unlearn anybody else’s version.
Elisha—In contrast, I research every song thoroughly. I listen to every previous version so that I know other people have done with it. Then I blend together the aspects of the versions I like the best.
DAU—Talk to me about rehearsal. Is your schedule dictated by upcoming gigs?
Elisha—We try to practice pretty frequently, no matter what the gig schedule. We play 20-30 gigs a year and because we play a lot of events like wedding and Holiday parties, we have seasons where we’re busier.
Dave—And then we practice more. We want to get better all the time
DAU—are there particular things you want to improve?
Elisha—For me, it’s patter!
DAU—you mean the talk between songs?
Elisha—Yeah. My son says that I’m embarrassing.
DAU—Do you all have kids?
Phil—I do, Elisha does.
Elisha—Phil’s kids aren’t at all embarrassed by him. They think he’s cool.
Dave—and Elisha’s daughter sings with us. She did some background vocals on Other Side of the Tracks, and she tends to perform on our open studio nights.
DAU—You have an open studio coming up.
DAU—Tell me some things you like about Dayton.
Phil—I like the restaurants. Really great things happening with food in Dayton right now. I like Wheat Penny and Amber Rose.
Dave—I like how the food community is evolving, actually the whole community. It feels like we’re on the move in a good way. So much is happening here. The Brightside is hosting a Battle of the Bands, Yellow Cab is having concerts—they just put in a new stage…there is a lot happening. Music artists in the community have a place to work, to make music.
Elisha—I love the tradition of innovation; things are invented here. It makes me feel like Dayton is always looking toward the future. And we have a solid sense of preservation and conservation too. The park system here is amazing. 20 minutes in any direction and you’re surrounded by nature.
Phil—and we’ve got sports. I am a sports guy. I appreciate that we’ve got a great minor league stadium here. My wife and I always buy a Dragons game package.
Dave—you took me to a couple of games.
Phil—and the University of Dayton. The Flyers games are great to go to—it’s exciting to have so much so available.
DAU—If you could see any band, what concert would you like to see?
Dave—Living or Dead?
Dave—Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris, Diana Krall, Cory Henry, Snarky Puppy, Pink Floyd, The Who. Hmnn…I guess I’ll leave it at that.
Phil—Glen Hansard, Damian Rice. Rice is like the poster child for minimalism. I saw him live in Indy and he had a guitar, a microphone, and 2 lights.
DAU—Last Question—What has been your favorite gig so far?
Dave—I love playing at Second Street Market.
Elisha—We’re doing that again on April 18th.
Phil—And the Square is Where, those are fun.
Dave—And the DAI.
Elisha—One of my favorites was at the Miami Valley School. We played for the Middle Schoolers who were learning about jazz.
DAU—OK, last question. I want to ask about your new CD.
Elisha—Other Side of The Tracks
Phil—We spent a lot of time on this one. We asked other artists to contribute. Nick Atkinson added percussion, Elisha’s daughter Penny does backing vocals, and Chris Suttle from In The Red Recording and Encore Studio did a fantastic job with the production.
DAU—I love the photos on the cover.
Elisha—My daughter, Penny, took the photograph on the cover. The one of us on the back was taken by my friend Kelly Crabtree.
DAU—The release was in October?
Elisha—The launch party was very magical, very personal. We had it at the Brightside, surrounded by our friends.
DAU–and if someone wanted to get your cd, they would …
Elisha —The easiest way to get either album currently would be to see us live and buy it at the concert. However, our first album is available on all the major music streaming services (like Apple Music and Spotify), and Other Side of the Tracks will be available at all those places soon, as well.
Blue Heron Trio performs all over the Miami Valley and beyond at concert, festivals, and special events. Look for them at 2nd Street Market on April 18, as well as lunch time appearances at Dayton’s Court House Square as part of the Square Is Where series. The trio is going to be performing as part of several summer concert series, including the upcoming Dayton Art Institute’s Jazz & Beyond concert series, where you can see them on July 9. They are also playing at the Eichelberger Amphitheater in Huber Heights on August 22. For more information and upcoming performances check out their FaceBook page or their website at www.blueherontrio.com.