Alizon Lissance and Myanna Pontoppidan

Alizon Lissance and Myanna Pontoppidan
Longtime Love Dogs, sometimes lone wolves

By Bill Copeland
January 2006

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Keyboardist and vocalist Alizon Lissance and saxophonist Myanna Pontoppidan are members of The Love Dogs, one of the Boston areaís most popular blues and swing outfits. Aside from working with The Love Dogs, each lady is a busy solo artist with her own band and her own records.

Lissance released her first solo disc a little more than a year ago. Pontoppidan released her third two years ago. In some ways they are a study in contrasts. Pontoppidan is tall and elegant. Lissance is small and lissome. Pontoppidan logged in a couple of semesters at Berklee College of Music and UMass Amherst before distaste for studying sent her off into the professional music business. Lissance returned to Berklee 18 years after she graduated to become an assistant professor in the collegeís harmony department.

Pontoppidan may have had to spend more time on the proving ground. There were not a lot of women playing saxophone when she started out in the 1970s.

“Some people, musically, they might have been a little bit skeptical,” she said. “I know that at Berklee, there were only 40 or 50 women all together in the entire school. Thatís including all the instruments.”

At rehearsals and jam sessions Pontoppidan felt more heat than the men did.

“They were probably a little skeptical, Iíd say, just having to prove yourself, which is a part of the environment at a jam session anyway. But probably a little bit more so for a woman. Most people, when they experience my style of playing, theyíre pleasantly surprised, because it doesnít seem to be as common for a woman to be as hard blowing as I am, and aggressive,” she said.

Pontoppidan was influenced by sax greats like Illinois Jacquet and Sonny Rollins.

“They had a lot of that same kind of aggressive style that I like,” the horn lady said. “Theyíre very different. I wouldnít be able to describe them both at the same time. Illinois definitely had that aggressive Texas style, very strong. Sonny had a very strong style too. I just was attracted to his phrasing and his tone, the whole package. Itís a visceral thing. To me, thatís what Iím attracted to more, someone who really touches me. Those guys were in that camp.”

Guitarists-vocalists Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King are also among her influences.

“Any instrumentalist isnít only attracted to the person that plays his instrument,” she said. “B.B. King just has that style on the guitar and the singing is something that hit me and I felt a lot from it. And Jimi of course, same thing. What an incredible innovator he was.”

Pontoppidan can easily draw influences and inspirations from many sources.

“You can definitely extrapolate from different instruments, different singers. To me, saxophone is closest to the voice anyway, so singers are definitely a big influence,” she said.

Pontoppidan studied with be-bop drummer Max Roach when he was teaching ensembles at UMass Amherst.

She shared the stage with big names fairly early in her career, including Grover Washington, Martha Reeves, The Platters and Ronnie Specter. She and Lissance performed in a popular Boston female line-up called Girlsí Night Out back in the 1980s. That local supergroup also consisted of second saxophonist Cercie Miller, drummer Kathy Burkly, bassist Sandy Martin, guitarist Wendy Sobel, and lead singer Didi Stewart. Being one of the biggest Boston bands, it was not uncommon for Girlsí Night Out to open for name acts.

“When I was in Girlsí Night Out, we did a lot of gigs with those guys on the same bill. It was fun,” Pontoppidan said. “It was fun getting to meet them, especially Ronnie Specter. She was really sweet. She still sounded fantastic.”

Pontoppidan first made her mark on the Boston scene in a girl band called Lilith, a project that originated in North Hampton and eventually moved into Boston in the late 1970s.

“We did a mixture of soul music and some rock, mostly covers and originals in that vein. We did a lot of the Philly soul and some of the popular tunes of the day. It was my first band as a professional. It wasnít that I was into that kind of music. It was a working band. So I was doing that and making a living doing it. I liked it. I wasnít a terribly good student anyway, so I was happy to find something that gave me an excuse to leave school,” she said.

Lissance got more involved with music education. Inside her there was always a teacher busting to get out.

“When I was in junior high school, I tutored kids in math because my teacher made me do it,” she said. “When I was a student (at Berklee) I was a tutor. Then when I got out I began teaching privately, and I actually taught at John Payne School - John Payneís Music Center. Heís a sax player. He has a school in Brookline Village. I taught rock and blues ensembles there for two years. I also ran an open mic at OíBrienís for Four years.”

Berklee, though, was her return destination.

“18 years after I got out, I just felt a desire to give back. I really wanted to go back to the school and work there. I persevered for a while and a slot opened up and I got a job,” she said.

Lissance has a real taste for the brainy stuff. She teaches courses in theory, jazz harmony, harmonic analysis, melody-harmony relationships, and she analyzes the way pitches function together and independently. She also understands the overtone theory, the idea that when a note is played, so are all of that noteís composite notes.

“Thatís the basis for how we determine music is either consonant or dissonant,” she said. “Itís all based on the overtone theory. Different cultures have molded peopleís ears. Itís really fascinating,” she said.

Girlsí Night Out brought the two together for the first time.

The female six-piece was born when the five women started a novelty band to perform music by famous all girl groups from the previous decade.

“We started out doing all girl group tunes from the 60s,” Pontoppidan said. “Sandy Martin and Didi (Stewart) basically had this idea: ĎLetís put together and do these girl group tunes,í and it morphed into an original band. We were very popular. A lot of people came out to see us and we got a lot of good feedback. The only downside of it was that it was a delay in starting my own music, which is what I started when that band ended.”

But the allure of Girlsí Night Out proved hard to resist for the young saxophonist.

“We were really good at what we were doing,” Pontoppidan said. “When Didi started writing original tunes, they were also very good. It was popular and we were fun to watch. It was a whole package thing. We put on a good show.”

In an earlier time period Girlsí Night Out could have received major backing from large record companies. Yet, this was during a time when major labels were promoting mini-skirted cuties like the Go Gos.

“We werenít into promoting the sex aspect of it,” Pontoppidan said.

Lissance also made the jump with Pontoppidan from Girlsí Night Out to The Love Dogs. She remains modest about being a member of yet another popular New England-based band.

“Itís just the way the cookies crumble,” she said. “I donít know. I worked with Laurie Sergeant in between that. Sheís an amazing talent and a gifted woman. She was in a band called Face To Face back in the 80s. They had a couple of hits on MTV.”

Lissance, recalling the hit, began singing it during the interview: “Ten-Nine-Eight/ Iím always counting down/ Isnít it funny/ Iíll ever get to one.”

In their solo ventures, the two women write and record music that is mostly different from The Love Dogs.

Lissance has bluesy, jazzy, groove stuff with a few piano pop ballads thrown in for good measure. Pontoppidan composes funky, jazzy instrumentals for her band she simply calls “Myanna.”

“As of late, Iíve been writing more groove-oriented music,” Lissance said. “Itís got strains of funky and some country, singer-songwriter type stuff with a lot more chord changes and some more jazz elements. Itís just a mix. Iím not really sure how to describe it. The way I write is a combination of styles. Iíve written some jump tunes. Iíve written some tunes for Love Dogs, too.”

As a Love Dog, Lissance usually relinquishes the songwriter role to bandleader Ed Scheer.

“Ed pens most of the tunes, but weíve written a couple together,” the keyboardist said.

“Iíve got one in the oven. Itís been in the oven for a while. It should be coming out soon as I get it together. Life gets in the way, shall we say.”

Pontoppidan enjoys the camaraderie of The Love Dogs. She joined around 1990 after meeting Scheer at a blues jam.

“Itís a very fun band,” the saxophonist exclaimed. “All the people in it are really great. We have fun together. Depending on the night, we can do two-thirds originals and one-third covers. Ed has written a lot of really fun tunes. I like the swing thing. Iím glad I have both projects, and that I can balance it.”

Both Pontoppidan and Lissance sing backups for The Love Dogs. During Ray Charles songs, the two function as makeshift Raylettes.

“I sang on my first CD,” Pontoppidan said. “My voice isnít that strong, so I havenít really pursued it.”

Lissance recalls Scheerís invite to join The Love Dogs.

“Ed called me. He said, ĎWeíre going to do this thing. Are you interested? Weíre going to be doing music from the late 40s, 50s; swing, jump-blues.í Actually, the first gig that we did was at WERS. It was radio thing at ĎERS. It was without drums. That was the first recording we did. Actually, it came out great,” she said.

When asked why she thought The Love Dogs has lasted for 13 years, Lissance cracked a joke: “Thickheaded perseverance,” she quipped. “Seriously, when thereís enough good stuff to keep people hanging around, they hang around. Thirteen years is a long time, and weíve all had our ups and downs. The bandís doing really good right now. If you give things a chance, they can develop and grow. Musicians - when things get uncomfortable and weird - bands tend to split. But Edís a fantastic leader, and I give him a lot of the credit for keeping us together. We have a myriad of personalities in the group, and Ed is an incredible bandleader. That, as well as the fact that everybodyís very talented. We all like the music.”

Pontoppidanís take on The Love Dogsí longevity: “You have to be able to get along really well. We have our issues with each other, of course, as any family would. But weíre usually able to work them out. We have a lot of fun playing together and we all respect each other musically.”

Her own band (Myanna) is not a side project. It is all encompassing. The saxophonist didnít have a concrete plan to start an instrumental funk-jazz band 13 years ago. It just happened.

“I didnít realize I was shooting for it, but thatís where it led to. After Girlsí Night Out broke up, I just started writing a bunch of tunes. It was just an organic process,” she said.

Naming the band after her first name was not an ego thing but a matter of practicality. She needed something people could associate with her and remember. Her last name frustrates the most agile of tongues and confuses the best of memories.

“I just decided to go by my name as opposed to creating a name for the band. The only reason I donít use my last name is because it has too many darn syllables. Nobody can pronounce it,” she said.

Although Pontoppidan has a lot of fun with The Love Dogs, her own band allows her more personal creativity. The Love Dogs play more swing, while she plays more groove-oriented music. She has used different musicians over the course of 10 years and three critically acclaimed records.

“Apart from a few cover tunes,” Pontoppidan said, “Itís all my own material. Some of the other members of Myanna have contributed some material, but itís mostly mine. It has progressed through the years from being a little more on the funky, smooth jazz end of things, and now itís much more bluesy and harder funk, and I wouldnít put it in that smooth jazz category at all any more.”

“Iíve written a couple of songs for The Love Dogs,” she continued. “But the thing that I get to do with my band is not only play my own music, but play a different style of music. Itís completely different than The Love Dogsí music. There is a little bit of crossover. Thereís a bluesy thing in both bands. But mine has much more of a backbeat funk aspect to it.”

Lissance, too, likes to stretch out with her solo act and her own band, Alizonia.

Like Pontoppidan, her own material becomes a major undertaking in and of itself.

“Itís important to feed all aspects of our creative selves, I believe,” the keyboardist said. “I love to play solo. I also write a lot of songs that are not in the genre that The Love Dogs do. I play my own gigs. I have my own band called Alizonia. I plan to do some more recording with that in the next year. I also play occasionally at the Colonial Inn in Concord on Mondays. I get a Monday night every so often. I do that with Greg Holt, who also plays bass in my band,” she said.

Her band features drummer ”Downtown“ Steve Brown and guitarist Wendy Sobel.

Lissance and Pontoppidan are also award winning artists under their own names.

Pontoppidan won the Boston Music Award in 1992 for Best Local Jazz Act Instrumental, as well as the Boston Phoenix/WFNX Best Music Poll Awards in 1994 and 1996. Lissance won the Boston Music Award for Outstanding Keyboards in 1991.

Lissance has more equipment to lug to The Love Dogs gigs. She plays a Yamaha P80 electric piano. She does like to use the house Hammond Organ at the Acton Jazz Cafe in Acton, when the Dogs hit that room on their regular rotation. She uses a small PA system for her vocal mikes and she plays a cute little purple accordion.

“I bring an accordion with me to the gigs,” she said, “Cajun zydeco music as well as some Tex-Mex stuff. I play a couple of Los Lobos tunes and originals that Ed has written. I play a German accordion, a Weltmeister, a world master - the purple one. Itís a Rubin model.”

While Lissanceís tastes stem from blues, Pontoppidan is a jazz aficionado.

“Jazz is one of those descriptions that encompasses a lot,” she said. “As far as Iím concerned, it encompasses a lot. Some people have different definitions of it. To me, itís improvisational instrumental music. It has to have improvisation in it, I think, to be able to be defined as jazz. It doesnít have to be just straight-ahead jazz, as some people think.”

Pontoppidan doesnít see eye-to-eye with purists because, she said, jazz in each decade was influenced by some other genre that was popular at the time.

“It started out as more poppy,” she said. “Look at the Louis Armstrong stuff. That was pretty popular music. Certainly, a lot of the jazz all along has encompassed an aspect of popular music.”

For her own jazz-funk compositions Pontoppidan tries to stay on top of the game.

“I just try to write a song that I like and that is interesting to listen to, and it has to be fun to play, and so, hopefully, different from what Iíve written before,” she said.

Her latest record One Never Knows, Do One? borrows its title from a Fats Waller quote.

“I love the message that it says, which is one never does know what can happen,” she said. “If you put your heart and soul into something, you never know what can come from it.”

“Thatís basically my feeling about it. In terms of that CD, I was more thinking of just putting my all into it, and you never know what can come of it. But, basically, you can extrapolate throughout your entire life with that sentence. I guess Iím not the kind of person who does all this planning one hundred percent of my life.” Pontoppidan said.

Many see her quiet reserve on stage and conclude that this saxophone player doesnít have a sense of humor. This could not be further from the truth. She has a much-tapped reservoir of humor beneath what she calls her “Danish reserve.”

“Thereís a book called “Danish Humor And Other Myths.” My parents are both from Denmark,” she said.

On her Web site, Pontoppidan has a photograph of herself in a sexy nurse costume. When asked about it, she laughed.

“It was a Halloween party at Johnny Dís. It was certainly out of character, but thatís a good thing. My first impression, I know, is that I come off appearing very serious, but Iím a lot less. I have a lot more humor and fun underneath my crusty exterior,” she said, giggling.

Using a wireless microphone on her horn, Pontoppidan will also walk off the stage and into the audience when sheís blowing a solo.

“I like to move around,” she said. “I donít like to stand still when Iím playing.”

Lissance, too, can be full of surprises in her visual presentation. The keyboardist usually remains calm and placid behind her keys. But coming out to front The Love Dogs on certain numbers, she turns into someone more energetic than the Tasmanian devil cartoon character.

“Maybe thereís a part of me that likes to just get out front,” she said. “Itís part of a personís rock star dreams. As pathetic as that sounds, itís probably the most honest answer I can give you. Itís fun. Itís a different perspective because Iím always in one spot. So itís nice to go around and also connect with the band - be close to the other musicians and be in the middle of things because Iím always on the side.”

Hyper and constantly in motion Lissance shifted in her seat endlessly during this interview at a Starbucks in Newton.

“I have to move around. I donít sit still well. Itís in my nature,” she said.

While Lissance taps the ivories of different keyboards, Pontoppidan can blow and write for soprano, tenor, alto, and baritone saxes.

“Each one has its own feel, and when I write a song, it usually calls out to me - which horn,” Pontoppidan said. “Sometimes Iíll have a song that Iíve played three different horns on because I keep changing my mind about which one sounds best.”

Her piece “Intrepidation,” on One Never Knows, Do One, was written specifically for the baritone. The lower end bari tickles the ear and draws listeners in.

While Pontoppidan usually sticks to one sax in each tune, the variety of saxes make her disc sound like a fun roller coaster ride instead of something flat.

“Itís good to add different textures for sure,” she added. “Thereís a lot of different ways of adding textures. I prefer to do it more than just changing horns. Iíve got trumpet and trombone, and Iíve got organ and piano and electric piano on there, and guitar.”

She tried to maintain a wide vision when she recorded her latest instrumental disc.

“I recorded 15 songs. When I picked the ten for that record, that was part of it, picking all the different styles and textures that go with each other to make a nice whole,” she said. “On my previous two albums, thereís at least one song that really stands out as being real different from all the rest of them, and I didnít want to do that. So itís good to have a lot of variety without really stepping out of your bag.”

She prefers funk in her own records because it gives people something to do with their feet.

“All music should make you want to move somehow or other, but that particular style of music makes me really want to move,” she said.

Drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, a nationally known musician, agreed to play six songs on Pontopiddanís latest. He just needed to be told what groove to play in, and his first takes were usually his best, she said. Pontopiddan said after explaining her grooves to the band, she likes to let go and see what they can do during improvisation.

“I donít micro manage parts,” she said.

Pontoppidan didnít start playing saxophone until age 16 when she was taking lessons at a Berklee youth program. She played recorder at five, violin from nine to 12, and folk guitar all through high school. She began hanging out with jazz fans in her teen years and that brought her into startling contact with the saxophone.

“I was like, ĎOh, thatís for me.í I just fell in love with it. A lot of people say itís their favorite instrument. I hear that over and over and over again,” she said.

Her disc opens with “Slippiní Down” by David Ed Newman, a New Orleans Mumbo that she likes the feel of. She covered “Cold Sweat” because she admires James Brown, and the song gives her a groove thatís fun to blow over. She composed a tune called “Chilling At The Lake” because the germ of that song came to her when The Love Dogs were hanging out at a lake in the Ozarks in Arkansas.

Her piece “One World” explores her use of a Soukous beat, and “For Illinois” is her tribute to her idol, Illinois Jacquet.

“I dedicated the whole CD to him because he had just died when this CD was coming out,” Pontoppidan explained. “I used to go see him all the time up in this place in Peabody. When I was in high school, my buddies and I would go up there and hear music a lot. He played up there quite often. He was really nice and we had a lot of good conversations, and he was very encouraging.”

She brought in Love Dogs leader Ed Scheer to sing “Vintage Love,” but Love Dog fans might not recognize Scheer on this track, since he sang it differently.

“Ed wrote that,” Pontoppidan said. “He recorded that on our first Love Dogs CD Ė a completely different version. We funked it up. The original is a slow swing, and he sang it down an octave, which is fun too---did that Tom Waits things on it.”

Lissanceís disc So What About You is a compilation of songs she has written and recorded since the early 1990s.

Her disc has many songs about emotional vulnerability, of relationships that didnít work out, or are not working out - or itís just starting and she is asking if it will work out.

“Because a lot of my musical creativity gets stimulated when Iím in turmoil,” she said. “I think thatís a classic thing. I think many artists go to their muse when theyíre troubled. So itís somewhat therapeutic to find a creative outlet for frustrations and sadness. Thatís what the blues is about. I also feel when I sing a song about a tough situation, if someoneís been in that situation, they can relate to it and hopefully gain a little insight because of my song. Itís also helping me to help others.”

Lissance said she is not writing about the same bad relationship over and over again.

“Oh, God no - many bad relationships,” she exclaimed. “Well, actually, theyíre not all biographical. Some of the songs are about situations I see outside myself. I draw inspiration from different things. If you read about the songs on my Web sites, there are little stories above the lyrics.”

In her song “Icy Blue Heart” she appears to sympathize with the teenage boy whom Pamela Smart seduced into murdering her husband.

“I donít know if I sympathized with him,” LIssance said. “Well, heís a poor schmuck. She talked him into doing this horrible thing.”

“I guess it was my desire to understand that. How can someone be coerced? Weíre all such sheep sometimes. As opposed to sympathize, itís more like an exploration. I donít know if I was ĎOh, poor kid,í so much as ĎWow, man, how could you let yourself?í Look what Charles Manson did. Those poor women man, I feel sorry for them now. Theyíve wasted their whole lives in prison because they fell for a Charles Manson. They were so desperate to break out of the shells of lives that they were living in,” she said.

“I think a lot of people are easily coerced into violent acts because they have a time bomb ticking in them anyway, all of a sudden---Blam!---hereís a way to let it out. Itís very anger based. You canít do things like that if youíre not angry to begin with. Itís prime, fertile ground,” she said.

The title cut of the album “So What About You” was the first song Lissance wrote on guitar.

“Iím still trying to top it,” she said. “I play all the keyboards on the whole album.”

Her disc also features a video of “So What About You.” The mini movie features two young actors in a whirlwind romance on the wrong side of the tracks.

“This was actually done by a filmmaker, a wonderful filmmaker named Dave Larue,” she said.

Lissance got her earliest education in New York City, where she grew up. She attended a sister school of the art school used in the film Fame. At age five she went to the preparatory department at Mannes College of Music.

“They had these juries and report cards and it was pretty intense,” she said.

Lissance landed in Boston to study at Berklee.

Like Pontoppidan, Lissance sprung from immigrant parents. Her father was born in Prague, and her Mother was born in a Frankfurt suburb.

Lissance would like to keep writing and recording her music and playing with The Love Dogs while they last.

“Iíd like to have some of my songs performed by other artists. I would really love that. As long as the music inspires me, Iím going to do music and keep expanding who I am,” she said.

Pontopppidan, too, seeks to keep pushing the limits of what she can do with her saxophones.

“Iím open to all kinds of things. Again, one never knows what might happen. Iím going to make a new one soon too. I havenít started recording it yet. Hopefully, this year Iím going to record another one,” she said.

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