As a high school senior in Berkeley, California in the late ’70s, multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum founded a big band called the Hieroglyphics Ensemble featuring some friends and classmates like pianist Benny Green, saxophonist Craig Handy, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. Since then, Apfelbaum has been an inveterate explorer of the craggy landscapes between different musical styles, working with an eclectic group of musicians from trumpeter Don Cherry, to guitarist Trey Anastasio, to synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla.
While Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble is still going strong today, he has recently put together a new group—SPARKLER—a multi-generational ensemble that mixes adventuresome improvisation with danceable grooves and song-oriented material. SPARKLER will make their Jazz Gallery debut this Saturday, March 28th. We caught up with Apfelbaum to talk about the group’s origins and his poly-stylistic musical approach.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working with SPARKLER since the Fall of 2012. Can you tell us a little more about how this group started, and how this particular group of people came together?
Peter Apfelbaum: Natalie is unofficially my goddaughter. She is the daughter of a really long time friend and collaborator, Jeff Cressman who plays trombone with Santana, and he is married to Sandy Cressman who is a singer and does a lot of Brazillian Jazz, and Natalie grew up with her younger sister who plays violin. So Natalie grew up in a really musical household and I’ve known her since she was born. By the time she was about twelve, you could hear that she was really developing a sense of phrasing on the trombone, and by the time she got to be in her mid-teens, she had become a really strong improviser and could also sing really well, and had had some actual training from her mom, so people used to joke that she could play like her dad and sing like her mom. She also dances and plays bass—she’s really multitalented. So when Natalie came out to Manhattan School of Music, she was already subbing with my big band, New York Hieroglyphics. Even when my regular trombonist Josh Roseman was able to do the gigs, we just kept her on and we had two trombones instead of one. I just kept thinking, I really want to do something with Natalie singing.
About three years ago I was thinking that I wanted to write lyrics more, and I kept having ideas that would come from random things, like even conversations overheard in an airport, or something like that. I wanted to steer away from writing a song in the conventional sense, part of it being because it was a little intimidating. I’ve always written music and lyrics have been a little bit more challenging for me. But I also was getting into groups like Cibo Matto, a more downtown group that got really big in the 90s, and they just got back together (they’re these two Japanese women who do kind of rap, and they’ll have songs about food and random stuff). So I started realizing that the subject matter could be actually really broad, and I could write lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily be a song. I could focus on a groove, which is kind of one thing that I’ve always done, and then have lyrics come in and out. So Natalie was important in that, and we started getting together.
And I thought I’d like to have two horn players that can play and sing, so I thought of Jill Ryan because I’d met her a few years before in Nevada when she was in high school, and I knew she could play really well. I’ve always liked the sound of alto sax and trombone together, and I decided I wanted to play more keyboards, so that I could focus on the bass line, because in this type of music that we’re doing which is more electronic and funk and kind of dubbed out stuff, the bass has to be really big, like bigger than it would be in a normal jazz group, so I wanted to be able to control that, so I’m doing keyboard bass, and then Natalie and Jill can sing and rap so I’m having fun with that.
TJG: Cool! So you’re saying you want to have a larger bass sound for dancing. Do you see the group playing in a more dance hall kind of setting?
PA: Definitely, I want to. The interesting thing about the group is that there’s a lot of ways we can go, but that’s the direction that a lot of the music that we’re doing is in because I realized I’ve been in clubs where something’s really strong but it’s musically not always super interesting, and I wanted to change that. I’ve always loved reggae because the bass is really big, it feels like you’re in a big cloud of bass, so I wanted to do something with a really strong rhythm.
In Hieroglyphics, there’s a lot of stuff with odd time signatures and even open time but with SPARKLER it’s pretty much always even time signatures, you know like 4/4, 6/8, or some permutation of those, because I want it to translate in a really universal way. But the other thing is, I get bored if all we do is grooves and lyrics and themes. To have a rich musical experience and express myself all the way there has to be some improvisation and some more subtle stuff too, so when we play The Jazz Gallery that’s gonna be a nice opportunity for us to get more into the more improvisational, subtle side of the band. When we first started doing festivals two years ago, it was great to see several hundred people dancing, or like shouting—I love that and that’s something we want to do more—but for this upcoming gig, it’s also gonna allow us to do some more of our nuanced stuff too.
TJG: You play drums, saxophone, piano, and you are also a well renowned composer. Would you say that one of these modes of creating music is closest to your heart?
PA: It’s hard to say, because ever since I was in elementary school which was the time when I started playing saxophone, and I had already played piano for a while and drums for most of my life, I’ve always seen them as different components of one thing. It’s like if I play only drums it’s like I’m only playing the consonants without having the vowels to express myself with. If I play piano, I feel like I’m missing the ability to bend notes, and I can do that on saxophone, but then I’m missing the ability to harmonize, so I kind of really need all of them. In a way though, piano kind of edges the others out, because I can do the most with it, and I can play percussively. And that’s kind of part of my style. I think it’s a bit crude, but I’ve developed this really rhythmic way of playing piano and it’s really natural for me. So in a way the piano I feel like I can do the most with, but I kind of need all of them, and that’s probably the reason that I am a composer.
I also love guitar and I cannot play the guitar, so I just try to hang out with good guitar players and write for them. The guitarist in SPARKLER is one of my oldest friends, Will Bernard. We’ve known each other since I was five and he was six. We grew up together in Berkeley and we’ve worked together in a lot of projects since then. He’s just a great musician with a wide vocabulary, he just knows the whole jazz language and the whole blues thing too. But then he’s very experimental and he’s very funky and very tasteful. So he’s perfect for the group. So basically I need everything that I can play, plus him.
TJG: It’s so great how you have connections with everyone in your group in different ways, and one of the wonderful aspects of your group is how intergenerational it is. How does the spectrum of your band-members’ experiences contribute to how you all create music together?
PA: I think to me it’s really valuable because when Natalie or Jill interpret a song, they do it in different ways from each other, but they also do it differently from somebody who’s my age. For example, Jill can sing with a lot of attitude. She’s usually more reserved, but if you just tell her to just feel free to let go, she can sing with a lot of power. and I feel like that’s coming from the music that we hear today, it’s just coming from the current vocabulary. In terms of sensibilities, Jill’s really up on a lot of music that people my age don’t necessarily know about, like Flying Lotus, so even when she’s just manipulating her voice with electronic effects, it’s coming more from that world. Most singers my age, like in their fifties, have a mature musicality but they usually don’t have the influences from today’s world of music as much.
Natalie is kind of different—I don’t think I’d be able to tell how old she was if I just heard her. She has kind of a young sounding voice but it’s very rich, so I think one thing she brings from being younger is a certain enthusiasm and a certain urgency. I’d have to say just to sum all that up that I love having the energy of younger people in the band. For one thing, they’re more liable to show up on time, we just take that for granted. But honestly when I’m writing for them, I’m not thinking about age, someone could be any gender, race, or age, and as long as they’re good and can bring something to it, that’s great. Now, that being said, I do have a desire to work with really old people. Like maybe do some concerts with SPARKLER where we put out an open casting call where people have to be like over eighty or something like that to come to and play, because they can also bring something to music, so that’s just something I’m interested in for the future.
TJG: You have played with and written for a lot of amazing musicians—from Don Cherry, to John Zorn, to the Kronos Quartet. What are some things you have learned from working with such great people, and how do you apply that to leading your own group?
PA: I think that I’ve always kind of felt like I’ve been in an ongoing process of developing something. It’s always pretty much the same no matter who I’m writing for. When I write for Kronos, or arrange for John Zorn, I’m basically tapping into what I do and I am writing the same way that I would for my own crew. So those particular instances and a lot of what I did with Don as well, it was just kind of me reacting to the situation and writing something that I wanted to hear that I thought was interesting.
In the case of Don though, in particular, I think I learned a lot about flow and what makes a good flow in a performance. With Don, there was so much variety in any given show—we could go from Indian music to an Ornette Coleman piece, to a bass solo, to just him singing alone—there was so much variety in the orchestration even though there were just four of us. I was always attracted to this with other groups like from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Pharoah Sanders to Yusef Lateef— groups that were using a wide variety of instruments like non-western instruments, African drums or other instruments. I always wanted to have a wide variety of instrumental sounds available. That’s something that I enjoy with SPARKLER even though there’s only five or six of us, Natalie can also play bass or Jill can also play flute, I might also play percussion. Those are all kind of things that I wanted to do but playing with Don Cherry kind of emphasized that even more to me, that a really great set can take you on a journey, and even if you just have two musicians, you can get a huge amount of variety tonally and instrumentally and orchestrationally, so that’s had a lasting effect.
TJG: On your recent EP I Colored It In For You, I was mesmerized by the balance of the catchy grooves mixed with complex harmonic ideas, along with the funky lyrics and quirky vocal tactics. Can you tell us a bit more about what we can expect from your upcoming album, and when we’ll be able to hear it?
PA: Oh yeah, well going backwards to answer the question about when, it’s kind of up in the air, but as soon as possible. We are gonna actually try to finish recording in the next couple of months, and we aim to have a completed album by July. That’s the goal.
In terms of what people can expect, especially since we did that tune, I Colored It In For You, SPARKLER can be a combination of a lot of elements at once, and not just musically because that goes without saying. But in terms of approach and attitude with the way that Natalie and Jill sing or speak, I want to get a lot of variety of emotions out of it. I feel like several of the pieces now are going for a combination of playfulness and intensity and urgency. We have a song called Lucky Number, which is all about this really, really high number that you have to wait forever for but it’s your lucky number and it’s worth it when it gets called. Then we just started doing a song called New Colors about a couple where the woman wants to take the man to a store and pick out all new colors for him because she just feels like he’s in the same old rut. It’s addressing this thing of people having ideas, and this delirium you get in when you have an idea. It can be about all kind of things, like when you have an idea for a new piece, when you arrange your house, or you create something new for someone to wear, or whatever, so we’re trying to get this like wide variety of subjects and attitudes and have things that are intense.
There’s a Dylan Thomas poem called “In The Beginning,” and we do a piece where we use some of the words from that poem, and it’s about his take on the beginning of the world. There’s even some biblical references in there and it talks about space and how the first stars formed, and how heaven and hell mixed when they spun through space, and I’ve always really loved that imagery. I feel like those are very basic, primal questions that people have had since the beginning of the world where we are thinking about what makes the world spin and like what makes us and all these really deep questions…
But then the other thing that I really want to make sure that we keep with SPARKLER is not taking ourselves too seriously. So when we do a piece like I Colored It In For You, it is kind of talking about this state of creative delirium when you’re really inspired and you want to make something or even someone inspires you, but at the same time, it’s also like a Dr. Seuss rap, where it’s really the extreme of not taking itself too seriously. And I think that comes from me feeling like if I write something that’s profound and meaningful, great, but there’s also things in life that are worth expressing that are a lot lighter and more playful too, so I kinda want to have all of that. And just in terms of vocal delivery, I’m having a lot of fun because we’re doing vocals that are really soulful, that do have more attitude and are more aggressive, and we do some things now where Jill is just whispering into like effects, and that’s something that I haven’t done before so we’re just kind of exploring the extremes.
Peter Apfelbaum’s SPARKLER plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 28th. The group features Mr. Apfelbaum on keyboards, tenor sax, and vocals; Natalie Cressman on trombone, bass, and vocals; Jill Ryan on alto sax, flute, and vocals; Will Bernard on guitar and bass; Kyle Sanna on keyboards; and Charlie Ferguson on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.