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Local Notable: Gwen Laster 

click to enlarge Gwen Laster - YANCEY HUGHES
  • Yancey Hughes
  • Gwen Laster

The rhythmic sounds of India and Africa might not be a traditional part of the scenic village of Cold Spring, but for musician Gwen Laster, she and her electric violin found the peace and piece of mind here over the past 10 years to create sweet music.

So how does a violinist get here? Gwen Laster first picked up the instrument in grade school in her hometown of Detroit. There were no professional musicians in her family, but her mother, a passionate music fan, often played Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, and Wilson Pickett for her daughter. She loved hearing the string arrangements used in the studio work of those artists and she joined a school orchestra beginning her love affair with the violin. As her musical education Detroit's public school system progressed, her teachers encouraged students to experiment. In high school, the orchestra director would point to a student during rehearsal and say, "Take a solo." It was that same teacher who introduced Laster to the electric violin and took his students on field trips to recording studios where they learned the difference between recording in a studio and performing music live. She fondly remembers how she and a few fellow students even formed "string" bands and gigged around the city playing rock and R 'n' B in the 1970s.

After high school, Gwen attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, majoring in music (staying on for a graduate degree as well) and playing in a traditional orchestra but always traveling home on weekends to continue gigging with old friends. Laster says the discipline of a classical orchestra versus playing out helped her individual sound take shape. In time she says it became clear that her career as a jazz musician would always be limited in the Midwest, and in 1993 she moved to Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood.

Once in New York, Laster followed the well-beaten path of so many other musicians and dove head first into the club scene. One gig led to another, and as she got to know more people Laster found herself moving from clubs to Broadway orchestras and eventually back to teaching jazz strings for the Harlem School of Arts.

By the turn of the century, Laster reached a point in her career where she knew she loved her work but was completely burnt out on the New York hustle. Having already released two independent albums, 1996's Sneak Preview, and I Hear You Smiling in 2003, it was time to decompress, but where? She credits her husband with stumbling across Cold Spring. A musician himself, he often traveled up and down the Hudson for gigs. On her first visit to the quaint river village, she was immediately struck by the aesthetics. "It's drop dead gorgeous here," Laster says. She didn't just move because its pretty—the affordability and easy access to New York made it the ideal location for her to put down roots, and in 2004 she officially did. In the near decade she's lived in Cold Spring, Laster says her scenic little village has changed a lot. "It's gotten much more citified," she says, "meaning there are a lot more people who have moved up here from New York and brought a lot of their progressive views with them." For her, the community changes have all been positive, even if it means gentrification starts pushing some property values up.

While she commutes in and out of the Bronxville recording studio where she's working on her latest album, Gameboard, Laster's expanded her teaching to include summer camps, workshops, and even yoga. Expect to find her latest work released this fall.

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  • Gwen Laster, Cold Spring's electric violinist, is this month's local notable.

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