By Margit Resch

You don’t have to go to Columbia to hear The Tony Lee Group. The band is coming here, to Fripp, to play for us.

Tony Lee

When I went to Columbia recently, I asked Tony Lee whether he was playing somewhere that coming weekend. I wanted to hear him. His answer: “I am playing, but not musically.” No wonder everyone loves Tony—he is funny. When I asked two friends I was “playing” with that weekend whether they knew Tony, they said: “Yes, oh, yes, he was in our Italian classes at USC, and he was an excellent student.” No wonder they remember him—he is smart. And when I asked Tony to tell me a bit about himself and his fellow musicians, he sent me a three-act bio of himself and a four-part epilogue about the other four musicians. No wonder I admire him—he is a wonderful writer; and, therefore, I quote his texts about his fellow musicians at length below. But most importantly, he is a musician, one of the most enterprising musicians you will ever meet, a drummer no less.

Tony studied English at USC, moved to LA and worked as an assistant film editor in major studios, even with Steven Spielberg, but couldn’t distance himself from playing music, and so he toured the country extensively with a nationally signed rock band, Treadmill Trackstar, until he finally settled in Columbia. There he gathers talented musicians to play jazz and all kinds of popular music in all sorts of venues, especially at Speakeasy in Five Points. They also help him teach people of all ages play instruments of any ilk through Freeway Music, a school he and fellow musician Don Russo co-founded twelve years ago, with six studios all over town and special programs like musical theater. An amazing range of entrepreneurship. No wonder Tony has no trouble attracting talented musicians, such as the four he is bringing to Fripp:

Catie (Cat) Galan had been a student at Freeway Music and has often been a featured musician in Tony’s gigs at Speakeasy. As Tony put it: “I became incredibly impressed with her talent… I had literally seen her grow up. Cat is diminutive, but her voice is anything but small. She was a frequent guest and was obviously growing into an exceptional musician. Precocious and fearless, she made a name for herself around Columbia as a first rate musician. She also plays violin on a virtuosic level. She’s amazing.” Catie has performed all over the world and teaches both violin and voice.

Nicolas (Nick) Vlandis majored in music at USC. A trumpet player before he converted to piano, (and an elite chess player), Nick, in Tony’s words, “quickly became a first-call pianist for a multitude of gigs around Columbia and has only grown his reputation of indispensability, becoming a respected arranger and music director for several groups, as well. Nick’s talent is only rivaled by his engaging personality and sharp wit. It is an extreme pleasure to play music with him.”

Kyle Bryant, “with his lumberjack beard and quiet demeanor,” as Tony put it, “disarms everyone he meets before they hear him play. His prowess on the guitar, an acrobatic display of fearlessness and complete control, alternately comforts and shocks. I have never played with anyone like Kyle. He is as thoughtful during his improvising as he is when he writes his original music, often using his little boy, Gibson, as his muse. Kyle is finishing a graduate degree in jazz performance at USC, while maintaining a professional career in graphic advertising, as well as being a husband and father. The man is impressive.” Kyle writes and records his work.

Travis Shaw lives in Augusta, but routinely commutes to Columbia to play bass. According to Tony, “Travis is committed to being the open, beating heart of any group that is lucky enough to have him. His technical ability means that he can play with anyone, but it’s his empathy and thoughtfulness that set him apart. He FEELS every note and those notes are split-second reactions to his feeling the notes around him. I have never met a more unselfish, skilled musician.” Travis plays gigs all over South Carolina with his original band, The Brownstown Gritty.

“Like Kyle, Travis is both a father and husband, a role combination that I,” i.e. Tony, “share with both of these men, which certainly plays a part in our musical kinship, but we connect beyond these obvious similarities. I feel both lucky and blessed to know them.”

Tony believes that the joy everyone in the group feels when they make music together is on display when they perform, and the audience can sense and observe that joy.

Come and sense and observe that joy when the Tony Lee Group performs on Sunday, February 26, 5:00 pm in the Fripp Island Community Centre, 205 Tarpon Blvd. Admission at the door is $30 for adults (credit cards accepted), students free thanks to the Peg Gorham Memorial Fund. You are invited to a meet-the-artist reception after the performance, catered, deliciously, by Harold’s Chef Services. This concert is presented by FIFOM and supported by the SC Arts Commission. It helps fund FIFOM’s Music-in-the-Schools program. See our website for more information, and call or text Vanessa Peñaherrera at (704) 807-0255 for reservations.