Changes pull folk trio apart 'We Are Going':After eight years, Sanders Kass & White to sing farewell concert before they go their separate ways.

January 26, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

When Sanders, Kass & White came together eight years ago, it was as if by harmonic convergence.

Exquisite vibrato, tight harmonies and a repertoire that traveled from "Motherless Child" to Christine Lavin's slyly subversive "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind" contributed to a sound immeasurably more than the sum of its parts.

With little media publicity and much word-of-mouth, the trio became something of a local phenomenon, complete with groupies.

"I initially thought our following was our friends who had to go," says Nancy Kass, who is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. "But I meet people in Greg's Bagels who say, 'Oh, I've been coming to your concerts for years.' I'm always taken aback by it."

Now that Anne Louise White lives in Massachusetts and as Elizabeth Sanders prepares to move to Seattle, the group is dissolving. Tomorrow night, Sanders, Kass & White performs a farewell concert at Wilson Memorial United Methodist Church in Baltimore. As the trio exits the sanctuary, perhaps singing "We Are Going," a signature piece, sad fans will know that this time, the going is for real.

Leaving is painful for the group as well. "It's devastating," says Ms. Kass. "It's different than when groups break up because people have outgrown the group. In our case, it has to do with life circumstances that have nothing to do with the group."

Their meeting was serendipitous. Ms. Sanders and Ms. White had already sung duets in small music venues around Baltimore. One night, they heard Ms. Kass, recently transplanted from the West Coast, sing folk songs at the women's coffeehouse at St. John's Church.

Shyly, a bit awkwardly, they approached one another about singing as a trio. It's not an easy thing to say, "I would like to sing with you," says Ms. Kass, 35.

Informally at first, the three women began to sing together. Each brought with her a unique sound and strength. Ms. Sanders' background was ethnomusicology and classical music. Ms. Kass was classically trained, and had sung with several symphony choruses as well as in coffeehouses. Ms. White was versed in jazz and blues.

"The first time we sang together, I was really impressed with how easy it went," Ms. Sanders says. "Our voices blended really quickly."

As they rehearsed and arranged material drawn from an eclectic pile of songs, including some originals, Sanders, Kass & White's sound got tighter and tighter. Sometimes a member would bring a written arrangement to rehearsal and the trio would fine tune it together. Other times, they would toss a song into the ring and play it to perfection.

"What's really amazing is that through the years we developed a real consensus way of working to gether which is quite extraordinary," Ms. White says by phone from Massachusetts, where she teaches high school music. "Sometimes we had to argue out our point, [but] we learned to give and take with one another."

Over the years, a richly layered style fused from jazz, folk and blues, with delectable Caribbean flourishes and haunting balladic phrasing, arose from those sessions. Loyal listeners also knew no arrangement was sacrosanct. A Sanders, Kass & White song often evolved over time, acquiring a reggae beat or a country twang.

The group invited accompanist Andrew Lawrence to "fatten out the sound a little bit" on their only CD, "Feels Like Home," released in 1991. Since then, he has become a cornerstone of the trio's live performances. (Local musicians Joanne Riley and Jonathan Jensen also performed on the album.)

While occasionally serving as the group's on-stage butt of its caustic, feminist humor, Mr. Lawrence, a local music teacher, also has had the chance to shine as a versatile guitarist and composer.

He credits Sanders, Kass & White for the rebirth of his own performance career. "They very generously offered to allow me to introduce myself to their audience," says Mr. Lawrence, who recently released his own CD.

The trio often thought about seeking a larger audience. "I always feel like we could have gone further if we had chosen and we didn't," says Ms. White, who toured with the folk music group Trapezoid for several years. "It's a bittersweet thing." But they shared the conviction that a successful stage career could come only with the sacrifice of family life.

As it happened, real life made it tough enough to preserve the group. "Once we started having all these babies, it really changed how fast we moved," Ms. White says. She has two young daughters. Ms. Sanders has one.

In 1994, Ms. Kass had a daughter who died in infancy. It was a sorrowful time that reinforced the group's friendship. In their child's memory, Ms. Kass and her husband created the Alison Rose Tunis Fund, a school-based performing arts residency program. Last year, Sanders, Kass & White gave a benefit concert for the fund.

Ms. Kass is expecting another baby this spring.

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