Berklee's Dr. Magpie Flies into DC

By 
Rob Hayes
May 9, 2008
Dr Magpie
Photo by Nick Balkin

[ View video of the concert ]

Berklee College of Music's innovative string jazz band, Dr. Magpie, will play a concert as part of the Kennedy Center's Conservatory Project on Thursday, May 22, at 6:00 p.m. Admission to the Kennedy Center's Family Theater is free, and an early arrival is encouraged.

Named for a bird that chatters and improvises, Dr. Magpie is composed of six of Berklee‘s finest string instrument players, who've come together to create a sound that draws equally from Appalachia, New York (both uptown and downtown), and the freewheeling Left Bank of prewar Paris. It includes two fiddles, two guitars, mandolin, and bass.

Think David Grisman, Django Reinhardt, Doc Watson, and Stuff Smith, together, in your own living room.

Head Magpie and violinist Ben Powell is equally at home in the jazz club and the symphony hall, with a substantial career underway in both genres before he came to Berklee. The members of the band have toured extensively with established artists and at the helms of their own bands, playing roots, pop, jazz, country, bluegrass, Celtic, and a dozen other musical styles besides.

The band will also record a one-hour special for XM Radio's Real Jazz 70 channel on Friday May 23, at XM's studios in Washington.

Listen to Dr. Magpie's song "Place de Brouckere" (composed by Django Reinhardt)

Ben Powell (violin, leader), is a jazz composition major at Berklee. He started on the violin at age two, learning with his mother, a Suzuki violin teacher. He was raised in Cheltenham, England until moving to the U.S. to study jazz violin at Berklee at the age of 19.

During his education in the U.K., Powell had many wonderful musical experiences. In 1998 he was invited to play at the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan as part of an international Suzuki celebration. In 1999 he toured the U.S. with the National Isis Strings Academy of Great Britain, and soon thereafter joined the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, where he stayed for three years. During this time he got to work with such conductors as Keith Lockhart, Andrew Litton, and Marin Alsop. In his last year in the orchestra Powell was awarded the position of principal second violin. Ben is currently a member of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, which he joined in fall 2006.

Powell is also an avid jazz violinist and has been experimenting with the idiom for the last seven years. In 2001 he was invited to play in a master class with jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker as part of the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival. From 2001 through 2005 Powell was leader of his own jazz septet, who were annual guests at numerous international jazz festivals across England. While studying jazz violin at Berklee, he has had the privilege of working closely with such artists as Gloria Estefan, Steve Gadd, Abe Laboriel, Joe Lovano, and Dave Liebman. In addition to music, Powell loves to play golf, and has a dream of becoming an airline pilot, should the opportunity ever arise.

Watch interviews and music clips from Dr. Magpie's performance.

From Minneapolis, Dan Carpel started playing the tuba at the age of 10. Intrigued by the low end, he began playing the electric bass seriously at 15. Studying under Berklee alumnus Nick Salisbury, he was introduced to the local music scene by playing in churches and a few bars. It was when Carpel got the opportunity to play at Minneapolis's acclaimed Dakota jazz club that he decided he wanted to make music his livelihood. While in Minnesota, he had the chance to work with local stars Kelly Rossum, Doug Little, Debbie Duncan, J.T. Bates, Chris Thomson, Chris Lomheim, and John Raymond.

Carpel came to Berklee as a performance major on the electric bass, but after seeing Dave Holland perform several times, he gravitated toward the upright instrument. He made a full-time switch to the upright in the fall of 2006. Carpel has studied with Whit Browne and Paul Del Nero, and currently studies with Ron Mahdi and Bruce Gertz. He toured the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 2007 as a member of the Berklee Monterey Quartet.

Eric Robertson is a mandolin player and singer/songwriter from Greensboro, North Carolina. He is a second-semester student in the Berklee string program and studies under John McGann and Eugene Friesen. Since his arrival in Boston, he has already been a part of a Berklee recruitment trip to Helsinki, Finland; the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival with the college bluegrass band; and performances at the Berklee Performance Center with several faculty members.

In 2007, he played mandolin with Polecat Creek alongside Sugar Hill recording artist Riley Baugus and esteemed songwriter Laurelyn Dossett. He co-arranged, performed in, and recorded A Beautiful Star under Dossett's direction with Triad Stage. Beaconwood, the Greensboro, North Carolina newgrass band he has played in since he was 14, released its self-titled CD in 2006. He has appeared on stage with David Grisman, John Cowan, the Infamous Stringdusters, and many others. His most recent studio project and debut solo album, tentatively titled I'm at Home, was recorded in early April and will be available in the fall of 2008.

Guitarist Jonathan Sosin is a senior at Berklee who is completing his jazz composition degree and graduating this May. He comes from Irvine, California, where he started piano at five and moved to the guitar at ten, to satisfy a class requirement at the Waldorf School. Immediately prior to attending Berklee, he studied for six months with Los Angeles-based jazz guitarist Matthew Von Doran. He credits Berklee professor Dennis Leclaire with helping him develop his compositional toolkit and concept. Among his current faves/prime influences are Bjork, Bill Frisell, and Steve Reich.

Guitarist (and banjoist) Adam Tressler, from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is moving to New York upon graduation from Berklee this May. He started on guitar at 10 when he played his friend's instrument. Realizing he wasn't going to be an athlete, and knowing he needed a hobby, he chose music. His first guitar teacher, and a major influence, is Tyler Campbell, a Berklee alumnus. At Berklee, he considers himself "fortunate to study and play with the college's finest in all styles of music, and (is) constantly amazed with how talented [his] friends are." This year, he has performed with singer/songwriter Sydney Wayser at South by Southwest, at the Bowery Ballroom, at and the Rockwood Music Hall. He has been a member of the Rainbow Band-led by professor Phil Wilson-one the college's finest jazz ensembles.

Fiddler Duncan Wickel (octave violin) is becoming recognized for his unique sound, which combines his diverse interests and abilities encompassing Irish traditional, classical, jazz, and world fusion idioms. He is a native of Asheville, North Carolina, where he grew up in a musical family and began studying classical violin at the age of four. At 14, he played his first gig alongside renowned guitarist and singer John Doyle. Wickel has since toured twice with Doyle throughout the northeastern states, featuring special guests such as Liz Carroll, Mick Maloney, John Williams, Alison Brown, and Gary West. Wickel and Doyle have also appeared on Public Radio International's Mountain Stage and collaborated in the studio for Compass records' The Light and the Half Light, a solo record by Doyle's father, Sean Doyle.

In 2007 Wickel became a member of the acclaimed Cathie Ryan Band, a group that tours nationwide and has recently been featured with the New Jersey and Hartford symphony orchestras under the direction of maestro Jeff Tyzik. He is also featured in James Devine's Tapeire-a groundbreaking Celtic music and dance show which has received rave reviews touring in the U.S. and abroad. Wickel is currently promoting his new band the Hay Brigade. At Berklee, he is a student of Christian Howes, studying jazz violin performance.