AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Apocryphal in New York, Sept. 18, 2014

by Monique Avakian


Vinnie Sperrazza – drums, compositions
Brandon Seabrook – guitar
Loren Stillman – alto sax
Eivind Opsvik – bass

Cornelia Street Cafe, NYC
CD Release
Cornelia Street Café, September 18, 2014

As I walked my own crooked trail to the venue, I met a man in monk’s robes. He gave me a golden ticket and a bracelet. But when I wouldn’t give him any money, he took them back! Hey! Didn’t he just mention the name of the Dalai Lama? A moment ago, wasn’t he speaking of love and peace? Oh, 6th Avenue! Ah! Apocryphal!

Apocryphal. A word and a concept. Perhaps even a lifestyle. First definition reads “false.” The second: “dubious.” Going deeper, you encounter cycles of biblical texts unearthed, locked away and subsumed. Rome is involved. Greece is presented at root. You begin to wonder about the earlier incarnations of the word created at the tribal and Goddess levels (which are not yet included in Wikipedia)….

Whatever your starting point for definitions and context, you’ll need 5 or 6 shovels at least as you dig in to the hidden secrets of these complex yet accessible songs brought to life by Vinnie Sperrazza, et al.

On stage at Cornelia Street Café on Sept. 18, 2014, the music was delivered from the heart, through freedom, and with playful mastery. The energy level of these four stellar musicians could not have been more intense, but I never felt overwhelmed by sound or ideas. Parts of the compositions felt eerily familiar at odd moments, yet the trajectories of sound and the narrative arc of ideas were completely unique.

It was easy for listeners to get on board, and many times I heard supportive laughter and hearty vocalizations from the large and wildly diverse crowd as we all thrilled to be part of this marvelous joyride.


Brandon Seabrook: electric guitar

Free and fluid, and like a living fractal, Seabrook propels his ideas out and further out, alternately leading and supporting through woven sounds characterized by texture. With playful integrity, he fades in and out with these sound thrusts that bend the ear through dimensions of clarity. Functioning almost as a human Theremin for the group, Seabrook simultaneously prepares the field and plows the way. Timothy Leary’s got nothing on this cat – Seabrook opens every door that materializes.

Eivind Opsvik: bass

Rudder. Compass. Tinder. Rhythmically, the challenges created by this group are vast and rapid in succession, yet, no turn goes unattended by this bass player’s firm command of form and function. Mr. Opsvik’s dependability as an inventive, responsive band-mate is perhaps only matched by his virtuosity as a soloist. The beauty of his improvisations illuminate an essence of melody in these compositions that otherwise would be lost.

Loren Stillman: alto sax

In fitting contrast, Mr. Stillman’s approach invokes the natural world: birds, waves, curves, streams, arcs, flutters, orbs, and spheres. Planetary revolutions. Hearty gusts of wind whispering passwords through keyholes. Living fields of light filled with subterranean creatures of essential import. Intellectually, it is obvious that Stillman carries forth themes and concepts through complex structural understanding, but as a listener you don’t have to get into all that unless you want to. This unassuming sax-man has nothing to do with false walls, superficial categories or meaningless slots of definition. Stillman’s oeuvre of being is open to anyone’s level of understanding, and if you just let his sound wash over you, you will know intuitively why Mr. Sperrazza kept grinning at him that night at Cornelia.

Vinnie Sperrazza: drummer, composer

Mr. Sperrazza’s way in is filled with surprises. As a drummer, that night and always, he takes incredible chances with improvised phrases of uber-varied character, often inserting percussive commentary at unexpected moments. It would be easy for him to get into a “schtick” with all this, but he deftly avoids all traps, and I think it’s because he has such a big heart and a generous nature. Anyone who knows anything about drums knows right away that you are dealing with a percussionist who is highly knowledgeable of the canon and technically able to achieve anything; yet, Sperrazza does not allow his ego to rule–he remains a true bridge-builder, exemplifying what it means to lead from the back. Or, rather, the side. Or, from below. Or maybe the space between. Or, perhaps from within: you decide.

As for my reaction to his work as a composer, I don’t even know where to begin. That’s why I really wanted to write this as a 3-dimensional sculpture, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit that inside this machine. However, I think you get the sense of the mystery, import, free-spirited-fun-loving-depth of muscianship, and much appreciated dramatic wackiness of tone involved in this incredible music. Please don’t misunderstand what it means to be playful and creative in the world we’re living in. As with every Shakespearean jest, the kernel of eternal wisdom is buried deep inside the joke. Don’t be fooled; you’re gonna get wise inside this music even though at first you think you’re just laughing your head off because you thought you were spinning out during a car chase scene involving your brother’s copper-colored Camaro.

Apocryphal. Vinnie Sperrazza never directly uses the image of a treasure chest, but there you have it.

Vinnie Sperrazza – drums, compositions
Brandon Seabrook – guitar
Loren Stillman – alto sax
Eivind Opsvik – bass
Loyal Label
Producer Geoff Kraly

Bird is the Word Review
Something Else Review
Fully Altered Review

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Thelonious 4 Meets Tony Miceli Live Show, October 19, 2013, Somethin’ Jazz Club, NYC

Review by Monique Avakian

The quintet was on time, but I was a little late. I walked in on a vibes solo and that was the start of one WOW after another. Oh! What a group! Time was upended, suspended, ingested and befriended. Like Nicola Tesla in that famous photo from the lab in Colorado, I remained seated, yet altered most certainly via the massive lightning bolts of creativity generated by the Thelonious 4 + 1.

Playing an all-Monk program is an ambitious challenge for any and all who dare to try to have that much serious fun. This Pentagram of the Possible delivered a very satisfying evening of close listening and radical chances. The Thelonious 4 come to us from all points essential: Argentina (Guillermo Celano, guitar), Germany (Andreas Metzler, bass), and the Netherlands (Iman Spaargaren, saxophone). The group formed in the Netherlands while the members were studying at the Conservatory of Amsterdam. I like to romantically envision the Netherlands as a place hell-bent on encouraging all manner of constructivist hi-jinks; a place where building beautiful, functional, abstract concepts is cultivated both inside and outside of the mind. Tony Miceli and drummer Dan Monaghan both live in Philly, and, well, even the Vegetarians among us know all about the battle between the states on the finer points of the food item known as the “cheese-steak.”

New York may come in second when it comes to cheese-steaks, but we were certainly in a privileged position to have Somethin’ Jazz Club host this group on October 19th. The group took us through Light Blue, Play it Twice, Bolivar Blues, Introspection, and Skippy (plus whatever tunes I missed). The solos were long and flavorful, and the group was tight and fierce, yet completely relaxed.

Tony Miceli the vibist, remains not only eternally unruffled and specifically centered, but exudes a kind of “chill” that can only be expressed in degrees of warmth. Mirroring the deep duality of cold metal and warm sound forged by his instrument, Mr. Miceli consistently offers listeners the universe inside each and every singular choice of note, rhythm, concept, feeling and phrase. With an open mind and generous hand, he invites you take a trip into the outer and inner realms. The technique of a master vibist such as Mr. Miceli is a feat to be studied as well as appreciated for those us drawn to this instrument. If you’ve never seen this man play live, I highly recommend a trip to the city of Brotherly Love–he is such a highly evolved instrumentalist. “Ripping vibes solo!” read my notes, again and again.

Continuing on with percussion, drummer Dan Monaghan was on board for the evening, and he is another feat to behold! I never heard this guy play before, and I’m dying to hear him again. Filled with joy and completely involved with the group and the music, this man echoed, threaded, motivated and united his cohorts into a space of group collaboration that drove the groove and rattled my heart to expansive heights of empathy. His way of playing seemed like a soulful kind of juxtaposition—he played in a certain way that seemed familiar, but his choices were kind of like giving us a concrete means to an unexpected and abstract end. It was cool approach, and he worked very well as complement to the vibes especially.

Next up, Andreas Metzler on bass. In a group like this, it’s too easy to overlook this instrument, precisely because the bass might have to be more straight up at times in order to support all this wild experimentation. But Mr. Metzler refused to drift into obscurity. He provided all that the group needed, and then some. On “Introspection” in particular, Metzler supported the band rhythmically, but also had a melodic and conceptual grasp that allowed for a way~out kind of spontaneity that dove-tailed magnificently with the trippy guitar.

As for the guitar, it’s interesting, because I used to think that putting guitar and vibes together was kind of redundant. And maybe that’s true if a guitarist plays conventionally with comping style and overall sound. But in the context of the Thelonious 4, Guillermo Celano actually propelled the group forward in all kinds of inventive ways, and not just sonically with electronics. Unlike a lot of guitarists, Celano was able to show restraint and lots of it. This made his excursions super powerful, not only when he soloed, but also when he comped for others. His comping style seems quite melodic and harmony driven. Celano’s choices during Bolivar Blues were terrifically juicy and invigorating as he had this unusual way-out surfer vibe going. It was very abstract, yet he never left the room. Tre’ cool.

Iman Spaargaren on sax also showed really effective restraint. He, too, felt a lot more melodic, and the way he solos helped my ear engage. Sometimes, sax players get hung up on antics and rapid runs up and down to the point where I kind of check out because it feels sort of like a cut and paste exercise. Spaargaren, however, had none of that going on. I noticed he had a way of breathing that involved filling the throat. I’m not sure about all the specifics of this kind of technique, but Spaargaren offered a lot of nuance and subtlety that made him rather magnetic. He took the role of announcer and near the end wittily quipped: “The time goes faster than we can play.” I was sad to have it end. This was a real listening adventure and a beautiful evening.

CD: Thelonious 4 Meets Tony Miceli:
(complete with liner notes, and even a poem written by an enthusiastic individual named Guy Zinger! )


Oh! And stay tuned for the Vibes Congress – coming up in January, 2014

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Sun Ra Arkestra with Marshall Allen

Sun Ra Turns 100: Sun Ra Arkestra with Marshall Allen
Review by Monique Avakian

“Every light is a vibrational sight and sound…”
–Sun Ra, The Other Side of Music, 1972

The overall feel of this show collected into a vibe that still activates for the positive, days later. On October 5, 2013, the Sun Ra Arkestra played an extended two sets totaling over four hours at Lincoln Center. Those of you who play jazz know the kind of physical stamina it takes to do so. Those of you who have never seen guys well over 60 and some well over 70 play like this (and dance throughout the room up and down the stairs), well, perhaps you might become more inclined to respect your elders. Many younger folks could not even begin to handle such a feat on a physical level. Of course, the younger players in the band are also to be commended — not only for keeping up, but each leading in his/her own unique way. The level of musicianship was astounding!

On a spiritual level, the group has managed to keep the essence of Sun Ra alive and well, largely under the firm, yet warm direction of original member, Marshall Allen. Dressed like the wizard he is, Allen led with superior conduction skills, wielded largely through osmosis with the band and supported with well-timed hand signals when necessary. Since the group nears the 25 mark in number of personnel, this was really impressive to witness. Other magic conjured by Allen translated to us through the use of visual symbolism (i.e., moving his fingers rapidly near the sax keys while not touching them, but still blowing in a kinesthetic sound~poem~kind~of~way). Allen also had an electronic wind instrument that he used judiciously. Near the end, I did wish for an analog theramin. However, since the band was playing the audience like a theramin, I guess the digital element didn’t really matter.

Another digital element that also augmented the experience consisted of artist Michael Arthur drawing live on a computer screen, with his images projected above the band. His style complemented the space~vibe, especially his choice of neon green, pink and black colors. The digital medium lent itself to a fluidity that kept pace with the band pretty well. The artist’s choice of themes mainly fell into portraiture of players, but at one point, he had hands playing strings inside a circle. A magnificently potent image!

The music was just spectacular. During the second set, the tunes were arranged to alternate between free improv creations (again, with nearly 25 players!) and standards morphed a la’ Ra. Oh, and by the way, the instrumentation included acoustic full sized harp, French horn, flute, samba drum, violin, spoken word and cello along with all the usual instrumentation you’d expect. Near the end, the ultimate in funk came through (this is a percussion section of five players after all). The last four tunes in particular waved throughout the room and right through the roof of The Allen Room, showering the city with blessings and delight on a cellular, as well as stellar, level.

At first I thought the location might make Sun Ra unhappy for socio-cultural reasons, but by the end, I think the significant irony actually lent another level of space he would have appreciated, especially since it forces us to confront the very uncomfortable social realities we all keep trying to ignore.

The Sun Ra Arkestra is an uplifting, wild experience that honors the legacy of a creative radical who remains radical to this day.

The Man Himself:
Sun Ra Montreux 1976 (II): Take The A Train
Sun Ra solo mind-blowing intro, followed by band:

Sun Ra – Interview + Live Toronto 1991

NEXT SHOW in nyc:

December 13 at NUBLU
As part of the NUBLU Jazz Festival December 4-22, 2013
62 Avenue C between 4th and 5th Streets, NYC

Arkestra Today:

Sun-Ra Related Art:
Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun-Ra
El Saturn and Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68
Curated by John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis
Whitewalls books/Hyde Park Art Center

Sun Ra’s Poetry:
Sun Ra: Collected Works Vol. I: Immeasurable Equation
edited by Adam Abraham
Phaelos Books

Sun Ra Biography:
Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra
by John F. Szwed
Da Capo Press

In the half-between world, 

Dwell they: The Tone Scientists 

In notes and tone 

They speak of many things…
The tone scientists: 

Architects of planes of discipline 

Mathematically precise are they: 

The tone-scientists

~Sun Ra

Performances Reviews

Undead Festival Live Review: Cinco DIY-Bring Your Own Mayo

An UNDEAD Improvised Music Review by Monique Avakian

Though I brought homemade chocolate-chip cookies for bait, sadly, I encountered no Zombies. However, there were several Other-Worldly moments that occurred at Brooklyn’s I-Beam on May 5, 2013, including a sighting of Elizabeth Reed making her way around the indeterminate and evolving wreckage near the 7th Street and 4th Avenue crossroads.

During the I-Beam portion of Search & Restore’s annual UNDEAD Festival, audience members were treated to a drum duo on two kits (Vinnie Sperrazza/Jeff Davis Duo); a trio of free-improv (Jesse Stacken Group with Mat Maneri and Devin Gray) and an electronica~trombone improv set with Brian Drye and Jacob Garchik. Big Eyed Rabbit (Max Johnson, bass; Jeff Davis, drums; Ross Martin, guitar) rounded out the evening, but, unfortunately, I had to leave before I got to hear them.

Vinnie Sperrazza and Jeff Davis

These compositions and improvisations were based on the rudiments, and I felt happy when I heard a flam and got that. Not being solid myself with all the rudiments, though, I know missed a lot of conceptual drum~puns; BUT, I had a good time anyway, enjoying two jazz drummers’ takes on the essentials of the extras based on the essentials.

The first tune, “Imaginary Friend,” went by really fast. Strangely, I don’t have any notes on this. Probably because I was too distracted obsessing about Sperrazza’s suped-up, vintage kit — a 1948 black Ludwig (!).

Second up, we had an exploration of Ted Reed’s Syncopation, which was really enjoyable. All drummers know that book because of the dorky cover, which has become a doppelganger for all the cool stuff inside. Sperrazza and Davis made it all the more cool and super intricate, especially at the beginning when the pair started off and maintained a soft volume for a very long time. Later, there was a lot of low-down on the toms spiced with rim clicks and some spontaneous conducting and exclaiming on the part of Sperrazza that led to more joyful joint improv. The whole thing ended with a loud crescendo into a double forte. Ted, I’m sure, would have approved.

Tune #3 began with a lot of cymbal wash and soft toms and fingers brushing against skins. Here, the duo created a very jungle-like, adventurous landscape, conjuring up all sorts of benevolent pacing power animals that lent some heft to the evening. The tune continued to evolve and at one point Davis pushed the butt end of a wooden vibes mallet across his Ride to get a singular soft searing sound; an industrial sound, but mysteriously non-abrasive. This was quite beautiful and enticing—to all spirits, earth-bound as well as transdimensional.

Near the end, this tune took a further ethereal turn when someone’s phone softly made that melodic five figure corporate pattern we all now have annoyingly ingrained in our consciousness. Interestingly, this did not repeat, leading me to think that this must have been a riff offered by the Imaginary Friend Sperrazza encouraged us to wonder about earlier. Then, again, maybe it was Elizabeth Reed calling for Ted. Or, perhaps, it could have been YOU!

In any case, the musicians deftly incorporated this tiny communiqué, ending the piece with a Sperrazza witticism about the day being a DIY Have Your Own Fun kind of thing.

#4 “The Hard One”: This felt like opening a treasure chest of nesting boxes filled with 5s and 10s. Charming and spritely, this exploration expanded my understanding of what might be possible if you trade in unison, if you know what I mean. This piece scaffolded around a structure that felt simultaneously collapsible and expandable with a quick ending. Maybe too quick! Hey, we were enjoying that!

By the time we got to #5, “Heretics on the Theme of Heresy,” we had already learned that we could explore “militarism without the militarism,” so we were ready for this intriguing change-up into a time-based rock feel where the two took turns: one improvising, the other keeping time.

Davis, I noticed, has this sly way of sliding into a ripping fast run, and, in this tune, this really solidified the groove throughout in a very subliminal and pleasing way. You could learn a lot about how to get around the kit from watching this guy, especially when he’s playing soft and fast.

Something really cool happened in the middle of Heretics: somehow, these two managed a complete surfer feel for a minute even though both were playing only snare. Weight, depth, punch, harmony and melody were all evoked clearly, yet, the only sound was snare. Wow! How did they do that!?!

Sperrazza explored a lot of tom work inside of Heretics, moving around the kit deconstructing a bunch of ideas and at moments looking vertically somewhat like Keith Moon without sounding like him at all. And wasn’t Keith Moon into surfer music? Hmmmm…..more DIY magic to ponder, along with Sperrazza inserting a single measure of a swing beat near the end: charming!

TRIO OF FREE IMPROV – Jesse Stacken, Mat Maneri, Devin Gray

This group was the most abstract musically, but conceptually, and with great irony, they began with the most mundane kind of conjure: horns blaring, cars rudely zipping by dangerously close…. It’s the dead of night, and it feels like the end of the world. You realize you’ve been pinned against the cold white tile of the carbon-monoxide filled tunnel buried under the sad and lonely city. And serious choices have got to be made.



Eventually, we crossed over into a more pastoral place, with rumbly drums and long bowed single notes from viola. Here, Stacken decided to make full use of the entire piano, moving up and down with really long, loud arpeggiated figures. Then he started pulling these sweet high pings out of the piano strings (literally), choosing next to alternate those with a classical sounding motif played straight up on the keys. At this point, Maneri started tapping the floor and instrument case with his bow while drummer Devin Gray scraped along on something….I think it was metal cookie cooling rack ?!?!?! (He also had a Ride made out of a piece of sheet metal and a hit hat with two mis-matched plates).

Anyway, before long, Maneri’s viola started to bend and Stacken started to pound into repetitive chords forged in sets of four tossed with sporadic rapid runs up and down. Furniture drawers in several adjacent buildings began to open and close in time to all of the sudden slamming sounds. Rugs turned into tigers and lamps flew around the room as various spirits passed through. I felt as if I might dematerialize at any moment!

I didn’t though, just became aware that Maneri was playing duple figures in what seemed like a familiar song turned upside down. Then he and the drummer galloped away, just briefly, before Maneri came back to move into a long drawn out series of single notes, bringing all of that intensity to distill into gentle piano into silence. We all hung there, suspended, for a
long time.

What a fierce experience!


Brian Drye and Jacob Garchik

Here you had two who became four, with a lot of wires and gizmos and what the heck is going on, I wondered, as it dawned on me that Garchik’s trombone mute was electrified (!) and hooked up to a pedal.

Both trombonists had electric keyboards as well as the acoustic piano to play. Drye had a very simple yet powerful-looking turquoise box, which he arranged carefully on the floor. It soon became clear that this was for looping. Everything was wired into a big black box which at first they couldn’t get working; eventually it was determined that one switch had to be pulled, and we were off like Frankenstein:

Somehow, the duo created unusual loops live in the moment to improvise with. How they managed to make these live transitions so smoothly is unclear and amazing. The ostinatos became very trippy and playful, eventually pulling us into a room full of purring cats on acid, suspended in time like that famous photo of Dali jumping with cats and water. The sound of trombones against all the electronica was warmly intriguing.

At one point, Garchik used the volume switch like a scratch DJ and Drye rigged it so there were several layers of scratching syncopation with the sounds morphing from a tuba timbre to industrial clapslaps to straight up piano.

Then Garchik quoted himself from his new album, The Heavens (!) and Yeats’ little silver fish spoke to me directly, vowing an open musical secret. (*)

The UNDEAD music festival – essential and invigorating.
Catch it next year. I DIY~dare you!

(*) Yeats’ poem, The Song of the Wandering Aengus, I just found out, was originally published in a book entitled: The Wind Among the Reeds. HA!

For further exploration:

Home (Maneri)

Assembly Yeats poem