Terry Grimley checks on the progress of Birmingham guitar combo Trio Gitano, who have a debut CD and a high-profile slot at next month's ArtsFest...
When I met up with Trio Gitano at the Custard Factory last week they had literally just got back from playing at the Lewes Guitar Festival the previous day.
A gruelling return journey via the M25 hadn't managed to take the gloss off an invigorating performance.
"We played there last year. It's a lovely little town and the festival has a great atmosphere. Everyone is guitar mad. We had seven or eight hundred people there yesterday watching us," said Sam Slater.
Including, apparently, a group of ten year-olds at the front who amused the Gitanos by jumping up and down and shouting "louder!"
Gigs like this are the cherries on the cake for the youthful combo - all its members are 23 - which has evolved over a decade out of the Birmingham Schools Guitar Ensemble. The bread-and-butter is provided by the weddings and corporate engagements which help to make the group a going concern alongside the members' part-time jobs.
Sam Slater, Jamie Fekete and Sophie Johnson first met when they joined the ensemble in their early teens (Sophie was 12). The ensemble is still going strong but while its former director Bryan Lester has handed it on, he retains the role of artistic director, general mentor and resident composer with Trio Gitano.
"Bryan's stuff is unique to us, so we know no-one else in the world is going to be doing it," says Sophie. "He's a published composer, and he writes a lot of exam pieces. All the rehearsals are at his house, and it's good to have someone whose judgement you would trust. We're all playing, so Bryan has a more objective opinion, and he knows our individual styles.
"One of the things that makes up the trio is that we all came to it from a slightly different angle, with different personalities and strengths. Bryan is very good at writing things and saying 'Jamie can do this very well', or 'Sam can do this very well'."
"When we first started we were playing a lot of stuff the ensemble played because we knew it," says Jamie. "Now we're geting a lot more into gypsy jazz. There's a lot of flamenco in there, but we all have different techniques."
"Although we've had basically the same training we have different interests," says Sophie. "Because we can all read music we can do it that way, but it's not as satisfying."
Many teenage musical projects fall apart when members head off for university, but Trio Gitano overcame this pitfall by the simple expedient of all going to Birmingham University. However, they deny that this was a deliberate strategy.
"There was a time when I was going to go to Manchester, so it was really only a semi-conscious decision," says Jamie.
"It's not like we said you're not allowed to go to Manchester," adds Sophie.
Jamie and Sophie both studied English and philosophy and Sam history, and Sam says the fact they weren't music students took pressure off them.
"What's nice about the group is that it's evolved quite naturally, and when it happened we realised it hadn't really happened like that for anyone else," Sophie points out.
"Even by the time we got to university we knew the way to get better was just to keep performing. There wasn't a lot a music course could offer us as a group. Plus we had the usual whole parental pressure - so now we've all got degrees they can all stop complaining!"
Since they graduated last year the trio's career has shifted into another gear. After playing around small venues at ArtsFest for several years they graduated to the main stage last year, in a sequence with Soweto Kinch and the CBSO which will be repeated on the Sunday night this year.
Last month they opened Moseley's L'Esprit Manouche festival, where they were already hawking advanced copies of their debut CD, which is officially released on August 22 on fledgling Birmingham label The Birds.
Featuring four original Bryan Lester compositions, including the four-movement Heroes suite, plus arrangements of the familiar Concierto de Aranjuez adagio, Django Reinhardt's Minor Blues and Paul Desmond'sTake 5, the album reflects the fluid continuum of classical, jazz and gypsy styles the trio has evolved.
"It's a first album. We recorded it a year ago and it's more a measure of what we had done up to then," says Sam.
Jamie sees it primarily as a useful tool which will enable the group to get better gigs: "So that we're playing at places music lovers go to, rather than weddings in Dudley."
"I hope it's going to open doors for us," Sophie agrees. "It seems unless you have a product it's very difficult to get gigs. We were being badgered about when we were going to get a record out. Every gig we do now we're managing to shift quite a few, and people want to come and talk about us."
The album is being distributed by Proper Music and should be in record shops across the country by the end of the month. It has already been getting airplay on Radio 2.
"It should help us to build a national profile," says Sam. " Hopefully in the New Year we can get a tour together, and by this time next year we'll be doing decent European gigs. It does appeal to different audiences. We can go and play at a jazz club, or equally L'Esprit Manouche."
"We want to play Glastonbury in 2007- there isn't one next year - and I want to get on Woman's Hour," says Sophie. "No, I've never met another female guitarist who is just a guitarist rather than a singer. My favourite comment is 'Oh, you're quite good for a girl!'."
* Trio Gitano's debut CD Who Ate All the Tapas? , released on The Birds label on August 22, is available now online at guitartrio.com/cd.htm. They play ArtsFest in Centenary Square on Sep 11. Further information at www.triogitano.com