Sax Appeal tooted horns for just causes and just for fun

Together since freshman year, the quartet members will head in different directions after May 22 graduation

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It's like Michael Jackson says in "Thriller" – they feel the creature creeping up behind them; they're almost out of time.

The four seniors, who performed the cult song on saxophone – replete with costumes, dance moves and beatboxing – at Culture X last month, graduate Sunday, May 22, after which Sax Appeal, a saxophone quartet they started during their freshman year, will no longer thrill Brandeis audiences.

"What I'm going to miss about Sax Appeal goes hand in hand with what I'm going to miss about Brandeis," says Jamie Fleishman, who instigated the band's formation. "That sense of belonging and engagement. I don't know if I'm ever going to have that experience again."

Taking a break from finals and thesis edits, the four musicians sit outside the Usdan Student Center and reminisce about their years together. They finish one another's stories, and each is quick to point out the others' strengths.

Sax Appeal was born at Einstein Brothers' Bagels. In the fall of 2007, Nevins, who plays soprano, alto and tenor sax, walked in, keeping an eye out for three guys "looking similarly confused."

Fleishman had orchestrated the meeting. Living in North that year, he had already noticed George Falk's tenor sax when he walked past his room, and was soon introduced to another neighbor, Evan Rosenberg, who played tenor sax in the wind ensemble. But Nevins, whose name came up because he played in the jazz band, lived across campus in Masell.

They had little in common besides their saxophones – with majors and minors ranging from East Asian studies to neuroscience to literature – but that proved unimportant. Rosenberg, a native of Doylestown, Pa., was the only one studying music, at least as a minor.

"If we didn't have the connection with sax, we probably wouldn't be best friends," Fleishman says.

The four freshmen held weekly rehearsals in the beginning, learning a repertoire from sheet music Fleishman had copied from his music teacher back in his hometown, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

They played their first show, a campus coffeehouse, halfway through second semester. Falk, of Chelsea, Mich., hefted a borrowed baritone saxophone from Slosberg Music Center all the way up to Chum's, where most coffeehouses are held, only to learn their show was scheduled in the Shapiro Campus Center atrium.

Sax Appeal's introduction to Brandeis on a larger scale came weeks later at the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts, where they played an arrangement from "West Side Story" at the Rose Art Museum.

"It wasn't a very good arrangement," Fleishman says, with his hands upturned and head tilted. The four of them laugh, as they interrupt each other getting to the punch line.

"One doesn't generally come to college lugging a bari," but the university owns two baritone saxophones, says Nevins, an English and creative writing major, setting up the story.

"So I made off with one," Falk jokes.

There was a jazz band concert the same night and while there were two baritones, there was only one mouthpiece.

"We had to adjust on the fly again, figure out a way to make it work," says Fleishman, who majored in politics and minored in East Asian studies.

The quartet continued playing together, and by all accounts improving, through sophomore year. They no longer relied on the copied sheet music, becoming comfortable with improvisation.

"George is going to lay down a beat," Fleishman says, "and we're going to jam."

By the time they reached the halfway point in their college career, they were a household, or at least dormhold, name.

"We were just so different from what people were used to," Falk says, noting that there are about a dozen a cappella groups on campus. "As much as people like a cappella, [the groups] take themselves very seriously. We're serious about what we do, but Sax Appeal is all about fun."

There's been plenty of goofy stuff – gigs in costume, like at Culture X or a 2010 Halloween party at Ziv, where they donned Beauty and the Beast and Indiana Jones duds, among others, from the Waltham Thrift Store. There was a birthday party on campus, and plenty of coffeehouses.

But they also played charity and seminal community events from the senior gift dinner to a Chabad gala for which they learned traditional Jewish music. They've volunteered to play fundraisers for the likes of the Prospect Hill Beautification Project, with Best Buddies, for children at the Stanley School and at nursing homes.

Their popularity has been, in part, due to the diversity of their music, their abilities and the environments in which they play, according to Rosenberg.

"Some of us are better at classical, others at improv," says Rosenberg.

After four years together, Sax Appeal is at their best thanks to practice and the musical camaraderie they've built over the years. They aren't done yet. The quartet will perform during senior week and at an arts department event.

Beyond that, their collective and respective futures are uncertain.

"Who knows how hard it will be working?" Nevins says.

Fleishman interrupts, looking at Rosenberg, "You'll be in med school..."

Rosenberg, who majored in neuroscience and biology, has lined up a lab job at Children's Hospital this summer while he applies to medical school.

Fleishman will remain in Boston for the summer, working for an Asian language publisher.

Nevins is will likely return to his hometown of Framingham, or possibly give New York City a try, while working on getting published.

Falk majored in Russian literature, and will return home this summer to consider his next step. Applications to service organizations like Peace Corps or Americorps seem likely.

But as they leave Brandeis, they hope their legacy will remain.

"We hope people will remember us as a big part of the Class of 2011," Fleishman says. "And maybe we'll all come back and play at our 25th reunion."

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