At any given moment, there’s an average of 20 people in the Florida Bjorkestra, the St. Petersburg phenomenon that regularly defies expectations of what a pop band can, and cannot, do.
For three years now, the ensemble has conceived, arranged, rehearsed and performed a string of concerts spotlighting the music of left-of-center performers like Kate Bush, David Bowie, Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel and Bjork, the quirky Icelandic singer/songwriter whose mono-moniker gave the group its name.
Since the beginning, the one constant in the Florida Bjorkestra has been its founder, Jeremy Douglass.
He’s a pianist, composer and arranger who’s been a key player in Tampa Bay music circles for two decades. “Since I was a kid,” the 44-year-old Douglass explains, “my fantasy was always to be onstage, playing in the ensembles on the music I listened to. I never imagined myself as, like, David Bowie. I imagined myself as a musician in David Bowie’s band. What would it feel like to be playing that stuff?”
Because it’s such a close-knit community, Douglass had no shortage of takers when he proposed a single event, a salute to Bjork at the tiny Hideaway Café in the spring of 2016. Like Douglass himself, many of his musician friends were ardent fans of what he calls “fringe pop,” lushly produced and miles off the mainstream.
Not that they got to play it all that often. “In our profession, we have to cater to our wheelhouse, and where we’re booked that night,” says singer Jamie Perlow, whose passion for Bjork usually takes a back seat to her regular gig, singing jazz and cabaret. “And this has none of that. This is just like a free-for-all for us. We get to explore different parts of ourselves, and express ourselves in different ways. I would never get to perform Bjork songs anywhere but within this group.”
That Hideaway debut sold out, as has every Florida Bjorkestra performance (in the larger Palladium Theater) since. “When we did Bjork, and saw all the people that came to see that show, a lightbulb went off in my head: There’s an audience for this; it’s not just me who wants to play it,” Douglass recalls. “So we were like let’s do it again.”
The group returns to the Palladium March 31 for The Secret World: The Music of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.
Florida Bjorkestra shows have become events, almost tribal gatherings of rabid fans who get a mad rush from the music they don’t get to hear much in a live setting. “There’s really no casual fans of these artists,” says Douglass. “You’re either in or you’re out. And those are the audiences I want to play for, people who are as much a fan of it as I am.
“These are artists that don’t tour any more, or never come here if they do tour. Or are long dead. People that you’re never gonna get to see if you just live in this town.”
For the March 31 show, jazz chanteuse Whitney James will be singing Kate Bush songs, while rocker Ronnie Dee will channel Peter Gabriel (“I am a total Peter Gabriel geek”).
For the band members, every new project is like a reunion of old school chums. “It’s almost like the only time you get to hang out with this large a group of musicians, when you’re on a project together, because everyone else is working,” says singer/songwriter Kasondra Rose, who has three albums of original music (produced by Douglass) to promote, but wouldn’t miss a Bjorkestra gig.
Douglass is both meticulous and thorough. And so he writes out every part, for every musician – “it’s a really, really frustrating and time-consuming hobby,” he laughs – and rehearses them at his home. “Because the band is so large, sometimes 24 pieces, scheduling everybody for rehearsals is impossible,” he explains. “So I break the group up into its sections. We’ll rehearse the strings and horns and rhythm section and vocals all separate from each other, and a lot of times the show is the first time all of us hear it all together.”
Arrhythmia – or everyone getting out of synch – doesn’t concern him. “Everybody’s really smart,” he stresses. “They’re all really great players, smart, intuitive, sensitive musicians. So most of it’s trust. Absolute trust in all these guys that they can do this.
“I’ve been making records in my little home studio for a long time, so I’m accustomed to thinking of music in parts. ‘Here’s what the drums play, here’s what the bass player plays.’ And at some point I decided I wanted to do this live, building songs the same way I do in the studio. It’s no different to hand those parts to a drummer and a bass player and do it in front of an audience.”
One thing the bandleader is a stickler about is using real musical instruments – there are real strings and real horns in the band, real drums, real guitars. He has a strict “no synthesizers” rule.
“That first show was an experiment,” Douglass says. “Bjork’s stuff is all electronic. And I didn’t want to use synthesizers and drum machines. So I re-interpreted that electronic sound for acoustic instruments – with strings and with horns, you have opportunities for colors that you’d normally need a synthesizer for.
“A lot of these other artists that we do, they come out of that electronic world too. So it’s a lot of the same thing, re-orchestrating electronic stuff for acoustic. And that’s part of the core concept of the group, that it’s an (amplified) acoustic ensemble.”
The wild freedom of experimentation – of anything goes (except synths, of course) – carried over to the Bjorkestra’s 2017 production, a live performance of a classic musical episode (“Once More With Feeling”) of the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Recalls singer Colleen Cherry: “We asked each other – are we the only ones who are going to show up? Are we just doing this for our friends? And it ended up that people flew into town to come to that show. Because Buffy has such an extreme following.”
Buffyfest was so popular, they repeated it in 2018. “We unearthed an entire subculture, and activated a call to action,” marvels Ronnie Dee. “We said ‘They know all the words; we’d better work harder on the words!’ It was almost like a Rocky Horror kind of vibe.”
Cherry, who works with American Stage in St. Pete and Jobsite Theater in Tampa, met Douglass when he was brought in to score the play Lizzie for Jobsite near the end of 2016. He’s since become the theater’s musical director.
Down the road, he says, he’d like to more theatrical elements into a Florida Bjorkestra event – after all, Bush and Bjork aren’t exactly shrinking violets. Nor are Gabriel, or Amos, or Madonna. And Bowie’s over-the-top stage productions were legendary.
“More and more now,” Douglass believes, “people don’t want to come to your gig. They don’t want to buy your album. But they want an experience that’s theirs and doesn’t belong to anybody else. So offering these shows that happen one time, and they go away, you create an experience just for the people that are in the room. And I think people respond to that.”