Brooklyn-based drummer, composer, and educator Vinnie Sperrazza is engaged in a wide range of projects. When we spoke last week, Sperrazza was at the Avaloch Music Institute for rehearsals with pianist/vocalist Yoon Sun Choi. Sperrazza’s previous albums have included Apocryphal (Loyal Label, 2014) and Juxtaposition (Posi-Tone, 2017), both of which were met with critical acclaim.
Sperrazza’s new album, “Hide Ye Idols,” features the same band from his previous Apocryphal record: Sperrazza on drums, plus Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, and Eivind Opsvik on bass. The album is infused with personal narrative, as well as both literary and cultural references. Produced by Paris Monster’s Geoff Kraly and mastered by Nate Wood, Hide Ye Idols has a thought-out and refined sound. The band will play The Jazz Gallery this Halloween at 9:30 P.M., sharing the bill with Chris Morrissey’s Standard Candle, who will play at 7:30 P.M. We spoke with Sperrazza about the album, literature, and his fledgling practice as a fiction writer.
The Jazz Gallery: How’s Avaloch Farm Music Institute, and what have you been rehearsing with Yoon Sun Choi?
Vinnie Sperrazza: It’s beautiful up here, and it’s nice to be out of the city. Here at Avaloch you get a room, a studio, food, and you just hang out. It’s hard to imagine anything better than this. There’s a lot of individual time too, so I’ve been practicing, writing, listening to music, resting. Yoon has this idea for a trio with me, her, and Dana Lyn. We’re looking at her music, rehearsing, improvising, doing everything we can think of, playing jazz tunes, pop songs, covers. It’s going well, and I definitely think the project will move forward.
TJG: Are you excited about your Halloween double-bill with Standard Candle? Last time I was at The Jazz Gallery on Halloween, I saw Jason Lindner wearing a wizard hat while playing with Justin Brown.
VS: Hell yeah. I’m not too costume-oriented myself, but I’m sure there’ll be some energy on stage. We can’t wait to play. This album definitely is the direction we’ve been heading in.
TJG: You’ve released one track as a preview, “Bulwer Lytton.” I love the pace, your connection with Brandon Seabrook’s guitar playing, the arrangement with the bass solo at the end. Who’s Bulwer Lytton?
VS: Bulwer Lytton was a Victorian-era writer, credited with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” It’s also thought that he came up with the phrase “The pursuit of the almighty dollar,” and maybe “Far from the madding crowd,” these cliché phrases that we use. He was an editor of Dickens. You know how Great Expectations has a happy-ish ending, where Pip meets Estella again and they get together? It’s thought that that was Lytton’s ending, that he pushed Dickens in that direction. Made it a little cheesier. Anyway. The reason the track is named after him is due to a complicated nexus of thoughts around how Victorians represented childhood, as well as an instrumental theme from my own childhood. I don’t know if you want to hear all of it.
TJG: I want to hear all of it.
VS: So, everything in the song was through-composed. Bassline, drum part, guitar, melody. But, if you listen to the track, specifically the guitar, there’s a hidden clue about the song’s meaning, an inside glimpse at what the song is about. It wasn’t an intentional aspect of the composition, but the guitar part is close to some Pete Townshend stuff. It’s really close. Brandon and I are massive Who fans, and even though “Bulwer Lytton” was written on piano, there are some chords there from The Who’s “Tommy.” Tommy, of course, is a young boy’s story. It’s deeply associated with all the feelings of a pre-adolescent child. It’s a beat-to-death classic rock warhorse that you don’t want to go near, but of course, when I was a child, I didn’t know it was a beat-to-death classic rock warhorse. Discovering Tommy was a beautiful moment for me. So without knowing it, while composing and demoing it at my house, “Bulwer Lytton” became a sort of portrait of the aesthetic experience of childhood. It’s a real scene from my childhood, that moment when a pre-pubescent adolescent discovers a film, song, person that makes them realize the world is ten times bigger than they ever imagined.
TJG: So, what’s your relationship with the written word? I read that you spent a summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an actor, and I’ve been poring over your blog too. You clearly love to write!
VS: I’m a middle-aged man with literary aspirations [laughs]. I read constantly. My nose is always in a book. My mother’s a librarian, and I grew up around books and people who love them. Up here at Avaloch, I’m trying to write some fiction. If you’re doing a musical improvisation, you’re dealing with sound, the room, your biorhythms, fellow musicians, the tradition, everything. It can get very music-y, you know what I mean? When you step away from it, you’re just a guy or girl in the audience bringing whatever you have to the sound. So, I find myself attracted to narrative, the idea of a story. I’m often aware of that when I’m at a concert I enjoy. I was at Korzo, and it was Tim Burne, Chris Speed, Dave King, and Reid Anderson. I was so happy listening to those guys. Tim, as crazy he gets, as uncompromising as he is, it feels like soul music to me. I feel it so often around the music I love, and the word is narrative. Whether it’s a feeling you’re trying to communicate, some quality, the word is narrative. So, the question is, if I want to tell a story, can I use language, not just music?
TJG: So you’re taking that initial observation about what you appreciate in the music you like, and trying to channel it into your own fiction writing?
VS: Yeah, that’s it. It’s just at the exercise stage right now. Start, and end. Short fiction. Nobody’s seeing these drafts [laughs]. It’s hard! If I thought playing a drum solo over a form, or a free improvisation, was hard, I mean, there’s nothing is more terrifying than giving a character something to do.
TJG: In your blog post liner notes on Juxtaposition, I love how you break down the symbolism of each song here, the significance of each part. Is this something you’d consider doing with Hide Ye Idols?
VS: Totally. One hundred percent. It might be a little less specific because with the new album, it’s more about group chemistry than Juxtaposition was. That was more of a group that came together to make that recording. The Apocryphal group came together with no thought of recording, just interest in playing together. I organized the session eventually, but it was the right time.
TJG: “Five Awkward Conversations With Paul Motian” is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. Have you written other humorous articles or posts?
VS: Yeah, but none of it has legs when I read it back the way that did, at least not yet. That was real. At the time, those stories about Motian wouldn’t have seemed humorous to me. They were frustrating, and sad. But with time they became funny. As far as other stuff, you know the movie Rosemary’s Baby? This premise that an out-of-work actor would have his wife impregnated by Satan so he could be in a movie, I found it completely silly. I found myself wondering, How on earth would you bring that up? How do you start that conversation? I tried to start that conversation between the satanist and Mia Farrow’s husband. “So, you mentioned you could help me with this movie role…” I did the whole dialogue, and it sure makes me laugh, but I don’t know why it exists, you know? Whereas, with the Paul Motian piece, the whole idea is about me grappling with a huge presence in the world of music that was gone.
TJG: Do you ever incorporate writing into your composition process?
VS: Kinda, yeah. That’s the next thing I’m trying to figure out for this band. A short story, something you could read on the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and music to go with it. That’s a ways off in terms of realizing that dream, but you’ve hit the point exactly. There was a suite of songs that I started rehearsing with different people with the thought of bringing it to the band, but it stalled, it needed some more work. Hide Ye Idols was a set of nine compositions from almost twenty that were submitted to the producer Geoff Kraly, that we sat down and sifted through. There was a wide swath of material that we slowly whittled down to the 40-minute record that we’ll release. Do you know Paris Monster?
TJG: Yes I do. I love Josh Dion’s playing.
VS: Josh is crazy. These are long relationships: Geoff and I met in high school, and have been ongoing collaboratively since then. Geoff and Josh met eighteen years ago through me. It’s too complex to write all the connections between Me, Geoff, Josh, and other members of the NYC jazz scene. Ben Scheuer is a singer songwriter who had a big Off Broadway hit called The Lion. I’m gonna go on WKCR and do Hide Ye Idols stuff, and Ben’s going to come with me. He watched the whole session go down. Geoff produced this band; Ben at one point had a band with Josh and Geoff; at one point Ben had a band with me and Geoff; it goes on and on. It’s just a beautiful mess of connections, these long-term relationships that have gone through different forms and methods of collaboration and presentation. The real backstory for all my stuff with Apocryphal goes back to these nearly twenty-year relationships.
TJG: I appreciate you walking me through the backstory, the symbolism, the music.
VS: I appreciate your interest! I love these guys, I love the music, and we can’t wait to play.
Vinnie Sperazza and Apocryphal celebrate the release of Hide Ye Idols at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, October 31st, 2017. The group features Mr. Sperazza on drums, Loren Stillman on alto saxophone, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, and Eivind Opsvik on drums. One set at 9:30 P.M. Chris Morrissey’s Standard Candle plays The Jazz Gallery that evening at 7:30 P.M. The group features Mr. Morrissey on bass and voice, Grey McMurray on guitar and voice, Nick Videen on alto saxophone, and Josh Dion on drums and voice. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.