Behind the Beat: Acoustic Alchemy

Magic. That’s how guitarist Joe Belmont and flutist Sarah Swersey describe the first time they made music together.

The two musicians traveled far and wide and played countless shows with far-flung musicians before ultimately finding each other, right here in the Pioneer Valley. The pair now record and play as Duo Fusion, and appear next on Sept. 12 at the Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke.

Swersey says that their story began when she was hired to play a concert in Connecticut. The booking person asked if she knew of a guitarist who could play not just classical music but jazz as well, and she thought of Belmont.

Although she’d never worked with him and didn’t know him personally, she knew of him from teaching at Northampton Community Music Center, where he served as the Director of Jazz Studies—and she’d certainly heard him play. Belmont agreed to do the concert, and as the two were performing, Swersey realized that this was someone she wanted to work with further.

“He can play anything and make it his own,” she says. “And the other thing that was appealing about the idea of creating an ongoing duo with Joe was that during the long car ride to that performance down in Connecticut, we had a lot of laughs. I knew we could work together.”

Belmont is known as one of the region’s best guitarists. He keeps plenty busy in world beat band Viva Quetzal and acoustic pop group Satinwood, and as leader of the Wes Montgomery-style jazz ensemble The Fellowship of Wes. He’s also a performance faculty member of the music department at Amherst College.

He says that he’d gotten heavily into flamenco guitar around the time of his maiden collaboration with Swersey, and quickly discovered that the flute/guitar combination was a perfect fit.

“Sarah’s such a confident player, and this leaves lots of room for some serious guitar jamming,” says Belmont. “Also, I’ve begun to realize that I can play all my guitar styles on a nylon guitar: classical, jazz—even get the guitar to rock on a bit.”

The duo experiments with all sorts of tunes and genres, both live and on their recently-released debut CD, on which the pair deftly tackles work from the likes of Astor Piazzolla, Bach, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Miles Davis.

This variety is something new for Swersey, who, before Duo Fusion, was a classical flutist, period. She says she spent her entire career performing one style with orchestras and chamber groups around the world, including seven years as principal flute with the Orquesta Sinfinica de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain.

After returning to the States in the mid-’90s, she played at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and Tanglewood before meeting cellist David Darling and joining his Music for People, an organization that teaches musical improvisation.

“But it wasn’t jazz,” she says. “It wasn’t until I hooked up with Joe that I began exploring that music, tentatively at first, but with Joe patiently giving me tips along the way. As we play together more and more, I’ve become bolder with my jazz solos, and Joe continues to encourage me.”

Audiences have been enthralled by Duo Fusion’s blend of jazz, Dick Dale-style surf, Celtic, bossa nova, tango, and rock. The duo is incessantly on the hunt for new, “out there” songs and elements to incorporate into their repertoire. Their current project is “Mountain Songs,” a classical suite based on Appalachian folk songs.

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Author: Matthew Dube

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