Fishtank Ensemble founded with international flare

Posted Jan. 06, 2011, at 6:24 p.m.

The gypsy jazz quartet Fishtank Ensemble gets its name from the performance and art space the lead singer, Ursula Knudson, was living in when the band formed in 2003. Knudson was living in the Oakland, Calif., collective known back then as the Fishtank, when Fabrice Martinez, a French violinist, came to visit her.

Other musicians in the house and in the scene that she knew were intrigued by his skills and wanted to learn from him. A gig was set up at a local tapas restaurant, accordionists and guitarists appeared, and by the end of the night, it was clear that Martinez, Knudsen and everyone else had something special going on.

“It was the happiest kind of accident, because no one was really looking to form a band, but we did,” said Knudson, who married Martinez in 2004. “A woman at the show asked us what our name was, and we really had no idea what to say. So we just said, ‘Err, the Fishtank Ensemble?’”

What started as a lark has ended up an international traveling musical revue, that’s been all over the world and back — from California to France, and even to Maine. The group will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7, at the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts.

All four members of the group have quite a musical pedigree. Martinez is a gifted fiddler, who learned the music in France and by traveling in a caravan across Europe. Douglas Smolens is an eclectic guitarist, with roots in the flamenco tradition but lots of contemporary influences. Serbian upright bass player Djordje Stijepovic has played seemingly every kind of music, from rockabilly to bluegrass. And Knudsen learned opera growing up, and took second place in the 2004 International Saw Festival. Yes, Fishtank Ensemble boasts musical saw.

While Fishtank Ensemble certainly has honed its chops in terms of the history of gypsy jazz and Eastern European music, the band takes a contemporary outlook in what they actually write and perform.

“We don’t claim to be a totally authentic experience. We aren’t totally traditional,” said Knudson. “I do things my own way, that may or may not be authentic in some ways. We all do. We play the music that we want to play, and a lot of the time, it comes out as this kind of music. We all have lots of different influences. We love klezmer. We love rumba. We love all kinds of things.”

The influences can be heard on the band’s three albums, “Super Raoul,” “Samurai Over Serbia” and their most recent, “Woman In Sin,” which came out just last year. “Woman in Sin” is terrifically fun, featuring Knudson’s evocative, Billie Holliday-esque vocals, Martinez’s lithe violin virtuosity, the propulsive rhythms of Smolens’ guitar and the downright dirty slap bass that Stijepovic plays.

Fishtank Ensemble has taken their show on the road for five years now, performing in cities as big as New York and as small as, well, Unity, Maine. The vibe from urban to rural varies, but Knudson says small towns often have the best audiences.

“In big cities, sometimes they don’t really react that much. But in smaller towns, people really get up and dance and have an awesome time,” she said. “They’re really appreciative. There’s a real party vibe. Montpelier, Vermont was like that. Our publicist has a really good handle on all of the great small town venues there are out there. And you get to see places you’d never normally get to see. It’s a lot of fun.”

Fishtank Ensemble will play at 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 7, at Unity College Center for the Performing Arts. Admission is $15. For information, visit www.fishtankensemble.com.

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