Internationally acclaimed violinist Marissa Licata discusses her eclectic style and her return to NYC’s Birdland

Following her successful headliner debut at NYC’s legendary Birdland in September 2021, violin sensation Marissa Licata returns with her Quartet (Licata on violin, Michael Aarons on guitar, Martin Doykin on bass, and Shannon Ford on drums), joined by special guest vocalist Aury Krebs, on Sunday, March 27, for two more performances of Strings on Fire in the Birdland Theater.

Marissa Licata. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In addition to being an internationally renowned classically trained musician in orchestral and chamber music, the versatile artist has been a vibrant presence on the rock music scene, touring and recording with the likes of Jethro Tull, Ringo Starr, Alicia Keys, Gloria Estefan, Wyclef Jean, H.E.R., and other major pop stars. With her signature flair, Licata also mixes in folk music and wild gypsy rhythms from around the globe and, since 2018, has even expanded into musical theater, joining the American Repertory Theater as violinist and concertmistress for the pre-Broadway run of the Alanis Morrisette musical Jagged Little Pill and playing with the orchestra at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall for the 2018 Christmas Spectacular starring The Rockettes.

She has since returned to A.R.T. as concertmistress for the musical Moby-Dick, written by Tony-nominee Dave Malloy and directed by Tony-winner Rachel Chavkin, and will be back at A.R.T. later this year for the highly anticipated production of 1776, directed by Jeffrey L. Page and Diane Paulus.

Marissa was kind enough to make some time in her schedule to answer questions about her career and her music in advance of the upcoming shows at Birdland.

Marissa Licata. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What’s your first creative memory as a child? At what age did you know you wanted to become a professional musician?

Marissa: My first creative memory as a child was playing at my first recital. I started with the Suzuki Method in group lessons. I’d go every Saturday and, playing with my group, would learn new simple pieces for several months. And then it came time for the recital! All of the students enrolled in the program, from beginners to advanced players – mostly kids ranging from ages 3-13 or 14, and even adult students – everyone participated in the recital. Those who knew the most advanced pieces from Book 6 would start the concert, and little by little, more and more students would join in as the pieces became easier. By the end of the concert, everyone was together in playing the very first piece from Book 1. Imagine something like 50 or 60 violinists all playing “Twinkle, Twinkle.” The floors and walls shook with resonance, and I remember being a part of that powerful sound.

That was my first creative memory. I was 4. Somewhere in me, I’m sure I knew even then that I wanted to be a professional musician. At 11, though, is when I made the decision myself and when I felt a shift in my brain that assured me I was meant to do this.

Most people don’t necessarily associate the violin with rock music. How did you expand from your classical training into that genre?

The transition to rock music found me, actually. I myself wouldn’t have even necessarily thought that violin would fit somewhere into rock, but Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull called the New England Conservatory of Music when I was doing my undergrad degree. He was going to be holding auditions for a US tour and needed violins. I was familiar with improvising and knew how to trust my ears from years of listening to all sorts of music, never just one genre. That, along with the classical technique I had, gave me all the confidence to know I could play anything, be versatile, and adapt quickly within any style. So, I auditioned and got the lead violin spot! It was Ian’s orchestral rock vision, however, that showed me how violin could be convincing, entertaining, and find a voice of its own within rock.

Marissa Licata. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What inspired and informed your eclectic mix of world music from a variety of cultures?

I grew up listening to all kinds of music. I remember my father playing salsa and merengue for me as a 3-year-old. One day it was that; another day it was Coltrane and then Cannonball, and then Ornette tunes. And then Handel’s “Messiah” the next day. I distinctly remember the day he put on a klezmer LP for me; I was about 4 or 5. I loved it, and all the note bends. There wasn’t an idea of “advanced music” or “she’s not old enough yet to grasp this piece or this tune.” It was played, and I was exposed to all sorts of greatness from before I can remember, and I absorbed it all in the way I was able to at the time. It became part of me though, and as I kept listening on my own through the years as I got older, it formed my musical tastes and sound and story.

Is there one moment in your career that stands out as the most exciting experience you’ve had to date?

When I joined Jethro Tull for my third tour, I was a featured soloist. It was a summer arena tour, so we had warm weather and huge outdoor stages. We were playing at the Jones Beach amphitheater, and I remember looking out into the 20,000+ audience during my solo for Bach’s “Bourée,” as this wavy green strobe light went over the crowd. I was totally conscious of every second and really tried to look at individual people out there. As the light went over the whole space, I realized I couldn’t see probably even a quarter of the screaming audience, but I wanted to move every single soul in there. In my mind I thought, “This is not a dream. This is me up here, right now, and they are all listening to what you have to say through the music, so mean what you say, and play every note like it’s your last.”

What do you enjoy most about performing as Birdland?

Birdland has become like home, especially after my debut show success. I feel like I can be free and open to lose myself in the music, in a really good way. There is so much support and encouraging energy, so all that matters is creating the moments for a moving experience. That is not always the feeling on every stage. It is true about Birdland!

Many thanks, Marissa, for giving our readers a preview of the concert and some background on your music.

Marissa Licata Quartet: Strings on Fire plays on Sunday, March 27, at 7 and 9:30 pm, at the Birdland Theater, downstairs at Birdland Jazz Club, 315 W. 44th Street, NYC. For reservations (priced at $20 for bar seating, $30 for table seating, plus fees and a $20 per person food and beverage minimum), call (212) 581-3080, or go online. In compliance with COVID-19 safety protocol, Birdland requires proof of vaccination or a verified medical exemption from all customers, staff, and performers.

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