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WESTSIDE / VALLEY : String of Pearls Beaded With Harmony and Musical Memories

July 18, 1993|ZAN STEWART | Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

Listen to the ebullient, enticing vocal trio String of Pearls, and you'll be treated to an entertaining stroll down a number of musical memory lanes.

"When we first started, we were just doing '40s and '50s jazz and swing vocals in harmony," said Perry Hart. Hart, along with Lawrence Duplechan and Katheryne High, founded the threesome in 1981, when they all were involved with the Horn, a now-defunct Santa Monica nightspot.

"Now the concept is harmony in general. We might do something like the Boswell Sisters, or a tune from Peter, Paul and Mary, or the Hi-Lo's," said Hart, referring respectively to the swing-era sibling trio, the folk music triad and the '50s jazz-based quartet.

String of Pearls, which now is made up of Hart, Warren Adams and Tracy Royce, is a zesty ensemble that exhibits solid vocal techniques, right-on intonation and a savvy rhythmic flair. The trio has appeared in 1989's "The Glenn Miller Band Reunion" on PBS, in the cross-country Big Band Jamboree in 1991--whizzing to 69 cities in 72 days--and on numerous telethons. The singers play Wednesday at the Century City Marketplace.

These days, String of Pearls investigates a wide swath of material, from Duke Ellington's "Cottontail" and Jorge Ben's "Mas Que Nada" to Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and Harold Arlen's "Let's Fall in Love."

There's a limit to the type of tunes the band will do, though. "We still don't do versions of Top 40 tunes," Hart said with a laugh.

Eclecticism is an essential part of the survival of the group, said Hart, a native of Munsey, Ind., who has lived in Los Angeles since 1975.

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"The industry wants you to do one thing so you can be marketed, but we get bored. We want to express different things," said Hart, 35. "If we want to express whimsy, sentimentality, or be melancholic or as corny as the moon in June, we do it, and if we have an itch to work in a more modern voice, we do that. We have a lot of places we can go."

Hart stressed that no matter what musical vehicle the group chooses, each particular performance lives or dies by the integrity of its interpretation.

"Whether you're doing Tin Pan Alley songs or Top 40, you have to communicate, you have to tell the truth," he said. "No matter how good you are in terms of technique or chops, or how fancy the vocal arrangement, if you're not communicating, everything else is a lie and audiences know that. They may not be able to tell in a 30-second sound bite, but ultimately they know it. I think this is why some artists endure, and others fade. It's not a question of commerciality."

The trio favors tunes from the '40s, '50s and '60s because they generally allow a more honest approach, and they have more substance than most current material, he said.

"The songs and the lyrics are more interesting, and there's a cleverness and sense of humor that doesn't exist in a lot of modern music," said Hart, talking about such tunes from the group's repertoire as Duke Ellington's "Hit Me with a Hot Note" and Nat King Cole and Irving Mills' "Straighten Up and Fly Right."

The band's vocals are arranged by Hart, who learned to create vocal charts while working at a summer singers' clinic hosted by singer John Davidson on Catalina Island. He said the group's renditions stress a rhythmic drive. "We swing, we swing hard," he said.

String of Pearls rehearses regularly, from two to five times a week. "Steady rehearsals let us provide our best sound," he said. "The best thing is to know what you're saying, then say it, from the heart."

As good as the group sounds, it still does not perform frequently. But there have been several choice jobs, including the "Glenn Miller Reunion" and many other salutes to the Big Band era. The trio is set to perform in similar shows later this year in San Gabriel and at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

String of Pearls has never had a recording contract--the trio put out a self-produced, self-titled album on Bottom Line Records in 1990. Nor have the singers had a manager. Hart feels this lack of attention is due to the band's devotion to non-contemporary material. "This is alternative music, and it costs a lot to do it right," he said. "If you want to make a lot of money fast, you probably won't do what we do. You do it because you love it. I don't fight the marketplace anymore."

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Since they don't perform that often as String of Pearls, the members have various forms of free-lance employment. Hart works as a singer/pianist, rehearsal pianist, choral director, vocal arranger and musical director. Adams is a free-lance singer and photographer who also does some acting, and Royce, 24, is a demo singer and a student of holistic massage therapy.

Royce, who, like Hart, grew up on classic pop music from the swing era, is right at home with the material delivered by String of Pearls.

"This music was ingrained upon me by my father, so I never had to learn to swing," she said. "And I like working with other singers. It feeds you, blending with other voices."

Hart said String of Pearls "is endlessly challenging. There's always something that can be improved. The challenge is to refine the sound, the technique, make the performances more honest."

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String of Pearls appears 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the bandstand (near the Broadway) at the Century City Shopping Center & Marketplace, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City. Free. (310) 277-3898.

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