INTRODUCING SPARKLER from Peter Apfelbaum on Vimeo.
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.