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Influential group opens experimental music series

The Emit series opens its 10th season with the Tone Road Ramblers, a widely admired, influential new music ensemble. Formed 23 years ago, the group of composer-performers includes brass, woodwinds and percussion. It will play a mix of compositions and improvisation at 8 p.m. Saturday at the St. Petersburg College Music Center, 66th Street and Fifth Avenue N, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $5 and $8.

Composer James Lewis, a professor at the University of South Florida, has written for the Ramblers, whose music is hard to categorize.

"It's not classical, but it's not jazz, either," Lewis said. "I can't think of a group that's similar. They really are top-notch."

Longtime members include Morgan Powell, a jazz trombonist and composer; flutist John Fonville, chairman of the music department at the University of California at San Diego; trombonist Jim Staley, who has been executive director of the New York new music club Roulette since 1980; and trumpeter Ray Sasaki.

Emit, which has presented more than 80 concerts, is shifting its focus somewhat. "We're trying to create events now rather than concerts," said founder and director David Manson. "We do "avant-athon' concerts. We do events that mix modern dance with electronic music. We did one with drone music. We've done Brazilian jazz."

Concert attendance for Emit's experimental music can be hit or miss. There have been crowds of more than 200 for groups such as the Glass Orchestra, which plays instruments made of glass, and saxophonist Sam Rivers. About 20 people showed up for trumpeter Jonathan Powell and a pianist.

Manson, a trombonist and composer, thinks Emit will benefit from becoming somewhat less esoteric. "We want to be a little more diverse and incorporate some world music. I think the future of the series is not to be quite so much ear-shocking, experimental stuff but to have a diversity of music."

TRIBUTE TO USF PROFESSOR: The Tone Road Ramblers will also play as part of a tribute to USF's Lewis, who is retiring. "I wanted to go out with a hurrah or maybe a hoot," he said. "I just decided I was going to present a lot of the music I've written in the 33 years I've been here."

The Ramblers will play a Lewis piece they recorded. "It's called Come What May Places," Lewis said. "It's a line that comes from Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life: "I used to visit all the very gay places/Those come what may places. . . .' This group does a lot of improv, so I wrote a piece that allows them to have freedom to improvise, and I call them "come what may places.' "

The concert is at 8 p.m. Monday in Theatre 1 on the Tampa campus. USF faculty and students and visiting artists will perform Lewis works such as San Juan Blues, Song from Somewhere and Tampanera. Admission is free.

Lewis, 65, is teaching this semester, and he will be closely involved in the staging of his opera set in Cuba, The Death of Caturia, to be premiered at USF in April. But he's looking forward to a change from the academic life.

"I want to do some traveling," he said. "I like to boat. I've taught for 40 years now, and I really feel like I've given my best. I'll get out before I get angry."

A LITTLE SONDHEIM MUSIC: Productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals are rare in these parts, so it's worth noting that A Little Night Music is being performed by the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival. There are shows through Oct. 10 in Orlando's Margeson Theater. $13-$38. (407) 447-1700, ext. 1.