To the Gills

Fishtank Ensemble time-travel for hybrid sound

As long as the inhabitants can tolerate the same water, it’s a good bet there’ll be a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes in any given fish tank. The same holds true for Gypsy jazz group Fishtank Ensemble, which blends Gypsy, jazz, flamenco, folk, rockabilly, tango, rock, pop and more to create a truly unique sound.

The group, based in Los Angeles, has been playing in the United States for seven years. But the European influence is undeniable—Serbian upright slap bassist Djordje Stijepovic has led many Serbian bands, not to mention rockabilly and bluegrass groups in America; French violinist Fabrice Martinez spent about seven years hitchhiking through Europe with various musical instruments; and guitarist Douglas Smolens is an accomplished flamenco and Gypsy jazz player.

Classically trained singer Ursula Knudson hails from Sacramento and plays theremin, ukulele, and, after joining Fishtank Ensemble, was inspired to learn the musical saw. “I guess I seek out nontraditional instruments,” she says.

Knudson mimics her own voice on the saw so well that at times it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Then again, her own voice is so versatile, maybe she’s mimicking the saw. “I guess I thought it was nerdy,” she says. “I didn’t want to be that girl who could only sing opera.”

Her singing is highlighted on the band’s third album, Woman in Sin, in a stripped-down version of “Fever.” The tension lets loose in the next track with “Djordje’s Rachenitza,” an accordion, violin and bass tune in 5/8 time that would be a sin not to dance to.

Stijepovic’s virtuoso slap bass finds its way into Gypsy and flamenco just as well as rockabilly and bluegrass; the refreshing sound brings a punk energy. There’s also a hefty Django Reinhardt influence from Smolens.

This hybrid sound is aided by instrument selection. The violintrombo is a peculiar instrument made of the body and strings of a violin with a long trumpet bell attached to the bridge giving it a loud, honky, Victrola sound. And though it’s no longer part of the band, the group once featured the shamisen, a Japanese lute instrument.

The banjolele will also feature in the upcoming concerts. The ukulele with the body and timbre of a banjo is one of those unexpected but wonderful combinations of sound. “It’s not my main instrument, but it gives a unique kick to the show,” Knudson says.

As if Fishtank Ensemble needed more quirks.