Entertainment: Music










Band puts high-brow training into play

Posted: Aug. 23, 2004

Five ambitious guys from different parts of the country meet in college, share a love for music and decide to form a band.

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Two members of Chester French, 'D.A.' Wallach (left) and Justin Hurwitz, have Milwaukee ties.
Two members of Chester French, "D.A." Wallach (left) and Justin Hurwitz, have Milwaukee ties.
When to Listen
Chester French is holding an online listening party until midnight Tuesday at www.chesterfrench.com. The group's debut EP is available to sample or download legally and free.

Like many young people, they're drawn to rock, rap and other popular music, and they play a mix of those styles in their band.

What's different about Chester French is that the band members have turned their individual conservatory-level training in jazz or classical music into a particular niche of pop they call "Gentleman Rock."

Imagine the music of '90s alt-pop darlings Weezer, but with a touch of Latin rhythms, Motown harmonies and lightning-quick, bossa-nova guitar runs to spice things up.

"We're roughly in the alternative, indie-pop mode, but we're not at all angry or ironic," said singer David-Andrew "D.A." Wallach, one of two Milwaukee-area musicians in the band.

"And unlike the creed applied by many indie-rock bands, we cheerily seek out and cultivate any commercial or marketing angles we can access to get ahead."

The band - lightheartedly named after the American sculptor Daniel Chester French - is still in its formative stages, mainly playing at pubs and special events near Harvard University, where all five musicians are 19-year-old incoming sophomores. But Chester French already has generated interest from some major labels.

Like Wallach, pianist and percussionist Justin Hurwitz calls Milwaukee home. When in Wisconsin, Hurwitz, a classical music, theory and composition major, spends time in Fox Point and at a family summer vacation home.

The other members of Chester French are Maxwell Drummey, a guitarist who studied at Berklee College of Music; Michael William Judge, the band's bassist and a recruit of Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatrical club; and drummer Damien Sayre Chazelle, a jazz-percussion prodigy who was ranked by Down Beat magazine as the No. 1 high school drummer in the country a few years back.

"We bring together years of jazz and classical training and try to hone the repertoire's most precious licks and passages into modern pop songs," Hurwitz says.

Their "Gentleman Rock" concept seeks to maintain the quirks and conceits of simple, pop-constructed indie-rock. But the group's ability to add clever, occasional classical-music passages or vintage jazz riffing gives the songs a bit more panache.

It's a highly playful, yet self-deprecating form of pop, lacking only in indie-pop instrumental excess and lyrical self-absorption.

They put just as much attention into their onstage wardrobe, which incorporates pop fashions and flourishes from the past 50 years. That might range from the latest hip-hop casual wear sported by Wallach to the Edwardian suits worn by Drummey, complete with colorful ascots dangling from his neatly pressed Turnbull & Asser dress shirts.

Weaving sounds, styles

The group's debut EP, "First Love," is a solid and expansive escapade touching on indie and orchestral pop styles of the last 40 years. It leads with "Dance With Me," a playful samba-rhythm, guitar-pop tune filled with bouncy serenades by Wallach and melodic tremolo guitar fills by the dapper Drummey.

Another tune, "Sister Song," has a slight '70s Brazilian-pop feel beneath Wallach's playful vocal, while "Your Profile" summons a breezy, ballad-like revision of something Santana might have come up with in its formative years.

"The disc represents our best effort so far in unifying all our various backgrounds and influences as musicians into one cohesive and definitive sound," says Wallach, an African-American studies major who has studied jazz percussion on a conservatory level since he was a child.

"For instance, when you first hear a song or two, you might think that we're not in any way into hip-hop. But when you see the live video footage, I do some rapping over some of the covers we do by DJ Premier and Dr. Dre, but with Gentleman Rock technique and conceits added to our versions.

"That's why I wear a red headband during our shows," Wallach says, referring to his signature piece of onstage apparel. "We all love rap, but we realize someone might not immediately recognize that based on a particular songs of ours - or especially if going on our looks."

From the Aug. 24, 2004 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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