Making music on Fifth Avenue

Three are in jazz band, one specializes in playing competitions and the last is in the school’s choir. Together, they’re a diverse group of musicians whose covers of songs include a blend of different genres and parts. Last October, seniors Andy Tsai, Bobbie Chen, Louisa Lee, junior Albert Loekman and former Walnut student Andrea Olofson-Chen formed Fifth Avenue, a band that specializes in its twists to popular songs.

“We were on our way to a recording studio one day and we were under a stoplight. The street happened to be Fifth Avenue. We thought we were being witty [when choosing the band name] since there are Fifth Avenues all over the country, and we would someday like to share our music with everyone from everywhere,” Lee said.

Tsai and Lee first collaborated three years ago in a cello-piano duet of Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson’s “Love Story Meets Viva la Vida” for a benefit concert. Chen happened to have his saxophone at the moment, so he snuck up from behind and started playing along. Since then, the three of them have been working together. They recently invited Loekman and Olofson-Chen to join the group upon hearing about their musical talents.

“Since I play the cello, in every song, I’m playing the bass. Bobbie’s very good at writing instrumental solos. Andrea brings to the table her voice because to us, it’s really unique. Albert makes everything sound livelier because he’s the drum player. Louisa’s the glue that holds it together. She plays [piano and saxophone] so she can adjust to whatever the song is,” Tsai said.

Fifth Avenue began recording at Amac Violin Center in Arcadia before high costs and the long commute forced members to go into DIY mode. Chen purchased a professional-grade recorder, vocal microphone and music editing software and the group began producing music at Loekman’s home, where the group has weekly practices.

“We have ideas already beforehand and the basic outline, so we just improvise [during practices],” Loekman said. “We have the time to try everything and all the different musical ideas we might have. Each person has a unique style, and so we try to complement all these different aspects.”

The band members play covers and mashups of songs they like or based upon people’s requests. With each member’s own style of music, Fifth Avenue has recorded songs including Beyonce’s “Halo,” and a mashup between Kanye West’s “Stronger” and Fort Minor’s “Believe Me.”

“Even though we are playing one piece, we play it in a style that combines Andy’s classical nature, Bobbie’s jazzy style, Albert’s beats, Andrea’s indie voice and my piano playing. Sometimes we have differing viewpoints on what direction the band should go, such as if we should record another song or release an album,” Lee said. “We also get into arguments about the music and what approach we should take with the arrangement of the music, but we always find a way to compromise.”

Their covers contain both elements of the original songs and features of the band’s own creation. Chen starts by writing a structure for the music but leaves spaces for improvised parts. The group’s improvisation skills have allowed the members to create distinct melodies that add flair to their covers.

“It just happens that Bobbie never writes a part for himself, so there are times when we run through songs, and he improvises to play the most amazing lick that we’ve heard,” Lee said. “The second we end, we tell him to do it again, and he doesn’t remember a single note he played. And so we developed a little habit of recording our practice sessions so that we could never forget these incredible licks that make our music so new and fresh.”

Taking the opportunities to share their work, they perform at school or club events such as NHS Idol and Writers’ Guild’s Spoken Word. They also recently spoke at TEDxYouth@CityOfIndustry’s conference “Worlds Imagined,” in which they demonstrated how they get their inspiration for their music.

“[The TedxYouth event was] an opportunity that doesn’t really show up too often. We got to share what we do and the process behind improvising. We focused on the three different steps: improvisation, arrangement and putting it all together,” Loekman said. “We actually had a draft for our presentation even though it was about improvisation. It was just a cool experience.”

Driven by its love for music, Fifth Avenue has goals for the future including recording a full album, creating original songs and covering soundtrack music. The group will be performing at Interkey’s Light the Night charity dinner on Saturday, Jan. 24.

“Working together makes me muse over the brilliance of music. Even though we joke around a lot of the times, when we have those moments where we create something new, fresh and creative, I just get the chills,” Lee said. “It’s so fun and encouraging to be surrounded by such great talent and ideas all the time. I think the times when we create music together, those are the best memories of bonding that I have with them.”

By Cherie Chu, In-Depth editor

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