David Soyer, the founding cellist of the regal Guarneri String Quartet who also appeared on many jazz and pop record dates in the 1940s and 1950s, including Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin, died on February 25th at his home in New York. He was 87.
David was best known in the classical world as a sublime cellist whose robust bowing technique and warm vibrato could move listeners to feel melancholy, sympathy and elation depending on the piece of music played. David studied with Pablo Casals and began his professional career in 1942 in the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy [pictured]. By the late 1940s, David was based in New York, and in the LP era was frequently called upon to play on classical, pop and jazz record dates.
In 1964, David helped form the Guarneri String Quartet with violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, and violist Michael Tree. The four musicians had been performing at the Marlboro Music Festival in Marlboro, VT. The quartet was named for the family of Italian instrument makers whose legacy dates back to 1641. The Guarneri String Quartet performed upward of 100 concerts worldwide each year and maintained an aggressive recording schedule.But what nearly all tributes to David over the past two days neglected to mention (including the one by The New York Times) is that he was often featured on jazz and pop recordings that called for "strings." He told me that his involvement with pop music dated back to Frank Sinatra's romantic ballad recordings for Columbia in the late 1940s.
David appeared on Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin (1958), Holiday's last studio recording with Ray Ellis in 1959, Ahmad Jamal's At the Penthouse (1959), Chris Connor's Sings Ballads of the Sad Cafe (1959), The Fabulous Little Jimmy Scott (1960) and dozens of others on which the string players were not listed by name. In other cases, his last name was misspelled as "Sawyer."
In January 2009, I spent an afternoon with David and his wife Janet Putnam Soyer, a harpist who recorded on even more jazz and pop dates than David. Both had recorded in Ray Ellis' orchestra for Lady in Satin. So when Janet invited me over to their Central Park West apartment, I came bearing a box of ginger cookies.
I also came with a remastered CD of Lady in Satin. The three of us then spent a half hour listening to it, mostly in rapt silence. Along the way, David and Janet had recollections and observations. In fact, David's cello solo opens I'm a Fool to Want You. (See my post on that afternoon here.) [Photo of Billie Holiday and Ray Ellis by Arnold Newman]
What I remember most about David that afternoon was the intensity with which he listened to the recording, his insightful and often hip comments about Holiday's voice and struggles that day, and his gentle grace.
Over his lengthy career, David made many classical, pop and jazz recordings. But perhaps my favorite of all is the one that Janet pressed into my hand before I left their apartment. It was a homemade recording of classical pieces entitled: David Soyer: Cello Program—David's Happy Birthday to Janet. "David made it for me for my birthday as a present," Janet said. "It's beautiful."
Indeed it is. David will be missed.
JazzWax clip: Here's Billie Holidays' I'm a Fool to Want You from Lady in Satin (1958), accompanied by David Soyer's cello in the intro. By the way, the harp you hear here and throughout the album was played by David's wife Janet Putnam Soyer...