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Once a quirky idea, the Florida Björkestra stirs a minor musical sensation in St. Petersburg

Vocalist Jamie Perlow, a member of the Florida Bjorkestra, rehearse, Monday, 3/13/17, for the groups upcoming concert at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.
Published Mar. 14, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG

Colleen Cherry rolled up to Jeremy Douglass with an idea.

"I would love to do a costume change," she said.

"Like, in the middle of the Bowie set?"

Cherry pulled out her phone. She's portraying David Bowie in an upcoming concert by the Florida Björkestra, a unique alternative-classical tribute project led by Douglass. She swiped to an image of a caped romper.

"It's covered in stars and it's silver and I found it for like $10 at this cheap store in Tyrone Square Mall. I was like: There it is. I'm wearing that."

"So when are you going to change clothes?"

"You said for Space Oddity that you want to do other people singing, but I'd just sing the 'Major Tom' part. So I was thinking, if we could have some kind of play-off before that song, I can run off and change, and then come out: THIS IS MAJOR TOM!"

It's a small idea. But then, so was the Florida Björkestra.

What started as a whimsical notion Douglass had while driving to a gig has blossomed into a minor musical sensation in St. Petersburg. After selling out its first three performances, the Björkestra on Sunday will graduate to the Palladium's 850-seat Hough Hall, with up to 18 musicians — strings, horns, keys, vocalists, percussionists — performing songs by Bowie and the group's namesake, Icelandic singer Björk. They'll have a face painter. They'll even sell T-shirts.

A grin spread across Douglass' face. He leaned toward Cherry.

"Yeah," he nodded. "That's perfect. Let's do it."

• • •

Fun fact about Jeremy Douglass: Before the Florida Björkestra, he'd never led a band.

He had a few combos in his teens and early 20s, small rock bands and "jazz-fusiony projects." But writing and composing always took a back seat to playing. He'd tour with other people's bands, produce other people's music, play Brick House over and over at weddings, piano bars, theme parks, you name it.

"I'm just a piano player," he said. "I don't sing. So I'm never going to be famous, right?"

There are a lot of working musicians like Douglass, 42, in Tampa Bay, talented performers happy to get paid to play, no matter the project. Douglass has worked with many of them, some for years and years. If you need a bassist, he can not only get you a bassist, but he can rattle off which bassist would be perfect for which song.

"The music scene, especially the working music scene, it's small," he said. "Everybody knows who everybody is."

In late 2015, Douglass was driving to a wedding gig in Naples, listening to Björk's 2001 album Vespertine — specifically, the song Unison.

"It has this little slidey synth sound — it just sounds like a synth line toggling between two notes about a fifth apart, but with some portamento on it, so the note slides up and down," he said. "As I was listening to it and having an emotional reaction to it — because that song is absolutely gorgeous — I thought, A trombone could play that part."

He spun through more songs on his phone, plucked more notes and moments from Björk's unconventional sound palette. He called a friend, then another, then another. Some were Björk fans, others were just working musicians intrigued by the idea Douglass was pitching: An organic, acoustic deconstruction of Björk's eclectic catalog. If nothing else, it was different.

"I didn't really know what to think of it," said guitarist LaRue Nickelson, one of the first people Douglass called. "I was like, 'That'll be fun,' and then we'll move on."

Instead, a March 2016 show at St. Petersburg's tiny Hideaway Cafe sold out. Word about the group's lush, fleshed-out performance rippled through the local music scene.

"I saw posts on Facebook and wrote something like, 'I love Björk!' — which I do; I've been a fan for a long time," said trumpeter James Suggs. "So he said, 'What if I wrote parts for you? Would you be interested?' " And so the Björkestra grew.

Eventually the buzz reached Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium, who's always looking for local artists to cultivate unique projects at his venue. He offered the Palladium's Side Door Cabaret for the Florida Björkestra's second show, a tribute to Björk and Kate Bush last July. Not only did it sell out in advance, but some fans came in costumes and T-shirts.

"I wasn't sure what to expect, and probably didn't pay him enough," Wilborn said. "But he came with this great band and sold out the Side Door, and it brought a younger audience to our place. Everything about it was exactly what I wanted, and maybe even more than I expected. I immediately said, 'Tell me what you want to do next.' "

Next came a tribute to Peter Gabriel and Tori Amos in December. Another standing-room-only crowd, with folks turned away at the door. That convinced Wilborn it was time to take the Björkestra upstairs.

"We've established ourselves with the 50-and-over audience for jazz and blues and classical music," he said. "What Jeremy's bringing is the next generation below who love this music that he's presenting. In a world of bad tribute artists, he's creating something that's unique."

• • •

Douglass is an unabashed geek. On the door of the garage apartment he shares with his wife, Rebecca Zapen (a violinist in the Florida Björkestra), and their two children is a wreath adorned with Star Trek symbols and photos of Ricardo Montalbán.

"Oh, the Wreath of Khan?" he said. "Yeah, I made that. My claim to fame is posting the Wreath of Khan to Reddit, and William Shatner commented on it. Somebody tagged him and said, 'William Shatner, you have to see this!' And then he commented, 'Leave me alone.' "

A project like the Florida Björkestra requires a level of geekiness, of hyperattention to process and detail.

At a desk adorned with sci-fi tchotchkes and Star Wars Lego models, Douglass dragged an mp3 of Björk's 5 Years into the studio program Logic Pro. It's a glitchy, imposing collage of tones that doesn't introduce strings until midway in. But the program can find the tempo, divide the song into measures and allow Douglass to pick out and loop in new sounds. That way, he can go beat for beat mimicking each musical component as its own track. When a demo is complete, the program prints out sheet music for each instrument.

"I feel like a translator more than a composer," he said. But there is creative satisfaction in trying to replicate the "dynamic heft" of what might be a 30-piece orchestra for a simple string trio: "It seemed like a puzzle presented itself, and I wanted to solve the puzzle." Occasionally he'll add new flourishes, like a horn on Bowie's Ashes to Ashes, or change a key to match a vocalist's range. But he aims to remain faithful to the originals.

It takes weeks to arrange and prepare each show. Because the Björkestra is made up of working musicians, most rehearsals can only be scheduled in sections, usually in Douglass' living room.

But so far, the payoff has been worth it. Since Florida Björkestra concerts are one-night only, each has the feel of a singular event or installation. As crowds have gone up, Douglass has been able to cut his players a better paycheck. He's discussed finding a benefactor to help underwrite rehearsals, ensuring every moment of his players' time does not go unrewarded — although there are some who'd probably do it for nothing.

Cherry, who has sung Bowie songs for years, called the chance to sing with an assemblage like this "a dream come true." And Ronnie Dee, who portrayed Peter Gabriel in December, called the gig a "labor of love. Man, a few of those tunes got me emotional every time I sang them."

Friends and musicians constantly pitch Douglass ideas for new tributes — Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Monty Python. He wants to re-create the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And he's open to bigger gigs at, say, festivals — as long as he can keep his core players.

"Where's the joy of sharing the stage with people I don't know — which I can do anywhere?" he said. "Why would I want to do that here?"

The band might not fill Hough Hall, but advance sales have exceeded expectations. And that's more than Douglass ever imagined.

"I'm happy that we have an 18-piece band coming to the Palladium, and everybody's going to make $100 — I think that's astounding," he said. "We're not trying to be the most famous cover band in the world. We just want to put on a nice show and have fun."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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