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Alsop, K. Lamar (11th March 1928-3rd February 2014)

Concertmaster and multi-instrumentalist who was born in Murray, Utah, into a family where his father was a chemist and he had seven brothers and sisters.  His main instrument was the viola, but he also played the clarinet, saxophone, and violin, and was regarded as a world-class whistler.

He and his wife Ruth were active with the New York City Ballet Orchestra for years and years, he as concertmaster and violinist, and she as a cellist. Their daughter Marin went on to become a conductor and violinist in her own right, and they frequently performed together.

Lamar managed to fashion a career that allowed him to flit effortlessly from genre to genre, and amassed a huge discography, as well as being in demand as a live performer. One of his earliest live gigs was of the unusual ilk, accompanying Yoko Ono for a piece of performance art entitled “Of a Grapefruit in the World of Park”, as part of “An Evening of Contemporary Japanese Music and Poetry”, on 3rd April 1961, at New York’s Village Gate. It was a good early example of the eclectic career Lamar Alsop would have. On 12th October 1962, you could find him playing the music of La Monte Young at Judson Hall in New York. By the end of the decade, he was recording Something with Tony Bennett. Lamar was also a member of the Alsop-Bernstein Trio, which featured his wife Ruth and pianist Seymour Bernstein.

In 1976, Lamar’s career as a studio musician really got going, when he played viola on Esther Phillips’ Capricorn Princess. The following year included collaborations with the Fania All-Stars on Rhythm Machine, several months of recording material with Bob James for the album Heads, and a pair of Meco albums, Encounters of Every Kind and Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk: Lamar multi-tasked on viola and violin on the latter, as well as on Lenny White’s Big City. In 1978, he was a member of the string section on Ralph MacDonald’s Counterpoint (credited as K. LaMar Alsop) and recorded Serpentine Fire with Marc Colby. Other releases from this year included In the Center with Rodney Franklin, Eric Gale’s Multiplication, Wilbert Longmire’s protein-rich Sunny Side Up, Hold On with fellow violin virtuoso Noel Pointer, Nina Simone’s Baltimore, and the soundtrack to The Wiz. Lamar would reunite with Bob James in 1979, playing viola and violin on Lucky Seven, and Wilbert Longmire, with whom he recorded the bubbly Champagne. He would also play viola on the title theme of Lalo Schifrin’s Most Wanted 1968-1979, dabble in espionage with Carly Simon on Spy, and provide the whistling on a remake of “Big Noise from Winnetka” on Bette Midler’s Thighs and Whispers. His most famous whistling credit, however, was on those ubiquitous Irish Spring commercials.

From November 1979 through April 1980, he and Bob James teamed up again for a series of recording sessions for the economically titled H. In 1980, Lamar got lost in a Daydream with Terumasa Hino, offered string support on another Wilbert Longmire project, With All My Love, as well as Spyro Gyra’s Carnaval. He also served as concertmaster and played violin on the soundtrack of Fame. Lamar created Magic with Tom Browne in 1981 and was part of the appropriately titled Super Strings on the Ron Carter album of that name. In 1982, he recorded Hands Down with frequent partner-in-crime Bob James, played viola on Barbara Rankin’s 1983 release, It’s Been a Long, Long Time, recorded Deedles with Diane Schuur in the summer of 1984, and played on the soundtrack of 1985’s A Chorus Line. In 1987, he and daughter Marin collaborated on a couple of projects, Joe Jackson’s Will Power and Carly Simon’s Coming Around Again: On both recordings, Marin assumed violinist duties and Lamar played viola. He played both on Gil Evans’ and Helen Merrill’s simply titled Collaboration, and was also listed as one of the musicians on Victoria Williams’ Happy Come Home.

On 31st January 1988, Lamar was the solo violinist for a New York City Ballet production of Igor Stravinsky’s “Violin Concerto”: On 4th June 1989, he performed similar duties for their rendering of Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto”, with daughter Marin conducting. Lamar took a break from live performing just long enough to renew his acquaintance with Carly Simon on her 1990 release, My Romance. On 19th February 1991, it was back to the ballet with George Balanchine’s choreographed performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Double Concerto”, with Lamar and fellow violinist Alan Martin playing so masterfully, they were actually encouraged to take a bow with the dancers at the end.

At the end of the year, CD enthusiasts were treated to Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album, which featured earlier recordings with Lamar on violin. In 1992, he performed similar duties on Nnenna Freelon’s self-titled album, took up viola on Renee Rosnes’s Without Words, and played viol and viola on Sinead O’Connor’s Am I Not Your Girl?. A year later, Lamar appeared on a pair of vastly different projects, Michael Franks’ Dragonfly Summer and Her Infinite Variety~Irene Worth as the Women of Shakespeare. He also performed viola on Marisa Monte’s Rose and Charcoal and Marianne Faithfull’s A Secret Life, released in 1994 and 1995, respectively. In 1995, Bob James’ Hands Down was finally released in England and Lamar entered the realm of folk on Peter, Paul & Mary’s Lifelines.

He appeared on a pair of soundtracks in 1996, The Chamber and Woody Allen’s musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You. In 1997, he played viola on the soundtrack of Ulee’s Gold and Blues Traveler’s Straight on ‘till Morning, and made the cut on The Best of Spyro Gyra: The First Ten Years. Another compilation he appeared on was Marianne Faithfull’s A Perfect Stranger: The Island Anthology, which was released in 1998, around the same time as Wynton Marsalis’s The Midnight Blues: Standard Time Vol. 5. In 1999, he played violin on Ricky Martin’s eponymous debut and viola on Marie Wilson’s Real Life.

He ended the millennium with a combination of studio work and live performing, appearing on Lenny Kravitz’s Greatest Hits and performing a rather unusual gig on 28th June 2000, at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, along with his wife Ruth. The program, which was called “Nationalistic Flavors of Music”, was part of a New York City Ballet Orchestra outreach program intended to bring some classical music to people who don’t normally get a chance to hear and see live music, and featured works ranging from Handel to modern American composer, Dave Rimelis.

Lamar opened the new millennium in the movie studio, playing viola on the soundtrack of Baby Boy, and the recording studio, on Melvin Van Peebles’ Ghetto Gothic: He also played viola on a pair of compilations, Gloria Estefan’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 and Popular Songs: The Best of Wynton Marsalis.

In 2002, again he split his time between recordings, movies, and live performance: He teamed up with Bob James again on BJ 4 and appeared on the soundtrack of Changing Lanes, and also took part in the Luzerne Chamber Festival, one of his favourite venues, in an unusual performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in D minor” with Lamar as part of a classical trio exchanging an improvisational conversation of sorts with the Bill Mays Trio. They reunited a year later for a similar concert at Sugden Theatre in Naples, Florida, as part of that city’s Classic Chamber Concerts, with Lamar in a rare outing on clarinet. He switched back to the viola on Gary LeMel’s The Best of Times, and the same year saw J. Billy VerPlanck dedicate a cello and violin duet to Lamar and his wife entitled “To the Very Best, Ruth & Lamar Alsop”. The two of them appeared in a series of concerts in the summer of 2004 at Alsop Hall in Saratoga Springs, with guest artists such as Marlene VerPlanck and The Mark Vinci Quartet. Lamar also found time to lend string support to Maynard Ferguson’s New Vintage and Warren Vache’s Warm Evenings.

In 2005, Lamar easily avoided the cutting room floor on The Essential Collection: 24 Smooth Jazz Classics by Bob James and made return appearances at the Luzerne Jazz Festival and Classic Chamber Concerts. The jazz festival was held on August 27 and 28 and featured Lamar on clarinet, saxophone, and violin, along with The Matt Herskowitz trio. A couple of months later, he was back at the Sugden Theater in Naples to help Classic Chamber Concerts celebrate its 11th anniversary with a program that featured music ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven to modernist Torrie Zito. Beethoven’s “Piano Quartet in E flat” was performed by Lamar on viola, along with pianist Toby Blumenthal, violinist Norman Carol, and cellist Bert Phillips, who comprise the Philadelphia Piano Quartet. They returned to the scene of the crime a year later, with the Herskowitz-Rozenblatt Project, for another wild mix of classical and jazz, and Lamar multi-tasking on clarinet, saxophone, viola, and violin. The music ranged from Robert Schumann’s “Piano Quartet in E flat” to Paul Schoenfeld’s “Café Music”, which has become a modern concert favourite.

He was multi-instrumental again on 25th June 2006 for a concert with Marlene VerPlanck at The Alsop Barn in Saratoga Springs. Lamar also served on the Saratoga County Arts Council’s Board of Directors during their 2006-2007 season. During this time, he continued to focus more and more on live performances, although he did appear on 2007’s Just like a Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs of the ‘60s. On 1st July 2007, he was featured as the guest violist in “An American Ball” put on by L’Ensemble at Flying Feathers Farm in Pownal, Vermont, in a program that featured music of Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Scott Joplin, Jerome Kern, and John Philip Sousa.

A few weeks later, officially retired as the concertmaster of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, he made another appearance with the Philadelphia Piano Quartet at the Luzerne Chamber Music Festival, in an adventurous program that featured Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Wind Quintet in E flat” transcribed into a piano quartet.

In 2008, Lamar rejoined Wynton Marsalis for the album, Standards & Ballads. In July of that same year, he also performed with The Hyperion String Quartet at the Saratoga Arts Center, in a program of Bela Bartok, Beethoven, and Felix Mendelssohn.

You can hear Lamar on a plethora of CDs, including Richard Barone’s Clouds over Eden, Hank Crawford’s Tico Rico, Maynard Ferguson’s Primal Screams, Eric Gale’s Ginseng Woman, and Diana Ross’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love. He also contributed music for the television program, That’s What Friends Are For, and sat of the Board of Directors for the Joyce Dutka Arts Foundation, Inc.

On 3rd February 2014, just a few days after his wife passing away, he died in Baltimore suffering complications from progressive supranuclear palsy.  He was 85 years old.

Frank Sinatra recordings
That’s What God Looks Like To Me (Stan Irvin/Lan O’Kun)
Reprise RPS 49233 (XNY2101S) (US 45)

Theme from “New York, New York” (Fred Ebb/John Kander)
Reprise RPS49233 (XNY 2103 S) (US 45)

Here’s the first part of the 1993 Eugene Symphony fundraiser which Lamar, his wife and his daughter all took part in.