Jeff Sipe (Apt Q-258) Interview
A remarkably flexible drummer who has exhibited great flash and bombast with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and in an expansive power trio with bassist Jonas Hellborg and the late guitarist Shawn Lane, Jeff Sipe is also capable of tastefully swinging support and coloristic textures on the kit, as he demonstrates on his auspicious debut as a leader, Timeless, on the Blues Planet label. Known as Apt. Q258 during ARU’s heyday in the early ‘90s, Sipe has also gigged and recorded with Delta bluesman CeDell Davis (who plays slide guitar with a butter knife), with jamband darlings Leftover Salmon and Jazz Is Dead as well as the ferocious fusion outfit Project Z, featuring ARU guitarist Jimmy Herring. He currently is a member of Susan Tedeschi’s working blues band and also appears on the debut recording by Bela Fleck & The Flecktones saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Bloom on Compass Records). Aside from own his stellar debut as a leader, look for Sipe on upcoming releases by Project Z and a new trio featuring bassist Hellborg and bassoonist Paul Hanson (who is featured prominently on Timeless). Sipe spoke to Abstract Logix from his home in Brevard, North Carolina.
BM: I was kind of surprised by your new record.
JS: Yeah, I think a few people might be expecting something a little different from me.
BM: Well, certainly from the stuff that I’ve heard you play with Jonas, like Time is the Enemy, Personae and Temporal Analogues of Paradise…that stuff is slamming, really hard-hitting. It’s a completely different approach to the kit than what you’re doing here.
JS: Absolutely, yes.
BM: This sounds like it represents a whole different side of your playing. In general, the vibe of this record reminded me of this obscure Les McCann record from the early ‘70s called Invitation to Openness.
JS: Wow, I’m not hip to that. I know about the live at Montreux sessions with Eddie Harris…Compared To What and all.
BM: This is something that came after that. It’s all Fender Rhodes with a much more spacious vibe. It’s not the gospel soul thing that Les is so noted for but it’s more open-ended and searching, in a way. A real relaxed, creative, exploratory vibe. Like your record.
JS: Yeah, I was going for melody on this album. I really was so distressed at the world’s situation in the past couple of years that I realized what I really wanted to hear more than anything was beautiful melodies. I’m at a place in my life where I’m looking for beauty…with depth, of course. Some harmonic depth. But undeniable, beautiful melodies and great soloists. So I really wanted to put something beautiful into the world because I put so much energy in past projects and bands where it was all about playing a lot of notes and really challenging myself on strictly a player level. But on this album I really just wanted be supportive and be surrounded by incredible musicians with a strong sense of melody.
BM: That certainly comes across on a tune like Song for Emmi, which almost feels like an Appalachian hymn or something.
JS: Yeah, that’s pretty, isn’t it? Very sweet. (Bassist) Derek Jones wrote that song for his daughter. So the intention is…you can imagine writing a tune for your daughter. It’s real precious.
BM: One other thing that surprised me…just because I had never heard you play this style before…was the very light, interactive kind of swing feel that you have on a tune like Atlas Shrugged. That sounds like it’s coming from a wholly different world from the stuff that you were doing with Jonas or ARU.
JS: Yeah, what’s really closest to my heart when I sit down behind the kit and I’m playing just by myself is usually kind of a bebop world that I’m really fascinated by. There’s just so much freedom, so much nuance in the triplet…it’s just a different animal than the straight 16th note or the straight 8th note. It’s just a completely different world being in the swing thing. So I really love it. I’ve always been a fan of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and all the great jazz drummers going back to Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. I used to practice along with Benny Goodman and Count Basie records and stuff like that. I love that world. But I also love the ECM-ish approach, where you’re playing a lot of cymbals and there’s a lot of space between the notes. I certainly love to play fast and loud and hard for a long time, and I had a lot of fun playing that style. But there is the other side that I find myself gravitating towards, especially now. The older I get, the more melody and more space between the notes I want. I’ve also realized that recording is a completely different animal than live. Most of the recordings that I’ve appeared on have been in live situations. This is one of the few studio albums that I’m on.
BM: And this was your first as a leader?
JS: Yeah, this is my first in terms of actually having a budget to be able to go in and get the players I wanted and not worry about the radioplay, per se, but be able to put something out that I really enjoyed. It’s nice to have a budget to go in, and the guys at Blue Planet Records said anything I wanted to record and give to them, they would release. So I had an opportunity to produce my own album right out of the gate and do what I wanted to do. We had three days in the studio and the first two were about getting the tunes down, and then the last day was having fun in improv settings in different configurations. I told everybody on the session I’d like for them to play a solo piece for two minutes, as if they were offering something back to the Creator…like a musical prayer. So it was fabulous. Everybody did a couple versions of it, so we ended up with 24 tracks on the session. Thirteen made it to this album but there’s some really beautiful stuff that didn’t make it.
BM: An especially strong voice throughout this recording is the electric bassoon player Paul Hanson.
JS: Yeah! Are you hip to him?
BM: Well, I am now. I hadn’t heard of him before but he really knocked me out with how free he was with the bassoon on your record.
JS: Yeah, I featured him on this album, along with (flutist) Kofi Burbridge. That, I think, was a really good pairing. They work together so well. Kofi really sight-read all of Paul’s charts. We do a number of tunes by Paul and all of Kofi’s stuff was first take and there was little discussing, if any, on the treatment of each tune. But once they started playing together, Kofi was matching the phrases exactly with Paul…almost on a psychic level. His ESP senses were really working on this session.
BM: I’ve seen Kofi before with Derek’s band, doubling on keyboards and flute.
JS: Right. He’s such a supportive player but when you really give him a chance to do his own thing his own way, I haven’t heard anything like it before. It’s really pretty magnificent.
BM: You mentioned that different people contributed compositions to this record. Did you write any of the material here?
JS: The two group collaborations, Proteus Melodious and Six Degrees, are the only thing that I’m co-author on. We did five group improvs while we were recording and those two made the album. But I didn’t write any tunes for this project myself. I’m not really so much a composer as I am a player, so I invited everybody to bring some tunes to the session. I think more important than me showing my compositional talents, it was more important to me to get a really solid, great batch of material together. And that meant, of course, letting everybody else contribute.
BM: I like the use of tablas throughout this recording. That adds an interesting flavor, especially on that tune that Derek Trucks plays on.
JS: Yeah, Osiris. His name is Mayook Bhaumik. He’s from Calcutta and he spends half a year in the States and half a year in India. He’s been the touring tabla player for the past ten years for the Indian classical vocalist Pandit Jas Raj.
BM: How did you hook up with all these different players? It seems like a really unique group of people to gather for one project, but it worked so well.
JS: Yeah, I think it works pretty well. I met Paul Hanson through Derek Jones and Paul McCandless. I was playing with a group called Commotion and Paul McCandless was in that group. And he had been playing a cd that just floored me completely, so I had to get a copy of it. It was Paul Hanson’s record (1997’s Astro Boy Blues on Moo Records), and Derek Jones was playing bass on it. But I didn’t know who was playing on it because I had just the cd without any information. So it was my new favorite and I was playing it for everybody. And when Derek Jones had moved to Nashville from the Bay Area he called me up and came down to visit and we hung out for a while, and a little while into it he asked me what my favorite stuff is that I had been listening to and I said, You won’t believe this stuff, and I put Paul Hanson’s cd on. And Derek got a great big smile across his face and just sat there. And I said, I don’t know who else is playing on this other than Paul but it’s my new favorite. And he said, Yeah, that’s me on bass. So that was most auspicious…and serendipitous. I met Kofi Burbridge and his brother Oteil (former bassist with ARU) in 1987 when they moved from Virginia Beach to Atlanta. We played in a Top 40 band together called Knee Deep, which didn’t last too long. But for me, it was an introduction to their genius. (Keyboardist and violinist) Jason Crosby and I met through Susan Tedeschi when we were both playing with her. Derek Trucks and I have been friends since ARU days. I think he was about 11 years old when I met him. He was already on the road by that time. I think I met him first in Charleston at the old Music Farm. It’s funny how you meet folks. Every year someone else comes into your life. The family grows, gets a little bigger.
BM: How did you meet Jonas Hellborg?
JS: I met Jonas through Shawn Lane, and I met Shawn through the Aquarium Rescue Unit when we used to come through Memphis. That’s where Shawn lived. He would come out and sit in with us whenever we came to town, and then when ARU disbanded Shawn gave a call and said he had been playing with Jonas and Kofi Baker. They had put out that album Abstract Logic and started touring. Shawn and Jonas later came by for a visit. We played a few times and that led to an opportunity to go to Europe and play with them. Jonas recorded all those sessions. In the year and a half that we were together with Shawn he got quite a bit of live stuff recorded. I think Shawn and Jonas met at a NAMM show and they hit it off right away, of course. Jonas had told me that he had given up on guitar players and he wasn’t going to start another band with a guitar player and then he heard Shawn and said, We’ve got to do this!
BM: Jonas was profoundly saddened by Shawn’s passing, as a lot of people were.
JS: Yeah. I don’t even know where to begin. He’s one of the heaviest cats I’ve ever met and one of the lightest at the same time. He had an incredible ability to perceive the world and laugh at it. Instead of just becoming overly depressed he would just bust out into laughter. Pretty amazing human.
BM: I remember meeting him a while ago when he had that first record that came out on Warner Bros., Powers of Ten. I interviewed him for some guitar magazine at the time and I remember him being a very sweet guy..as well as a very deep virtuoso.
JS: Shawn was a really sweet person and had an incredible appetite for everything interesting in life. As obsessed as he was about music and performing, he was the same way about the culinary arts and great literature…everything that life had to offer, he would consume it. And he wasn’t afraid of anything.
BM: I remember talking to Derek Trucks about Shawn. Derek was so amazed at his depth of understanding of Indian classical music.
JS: Yeah! He really got into that music deeply. Yeah, he could hear it all.
BM: The music that you played in that trio with Shawn and Jonas was certainly dynamic. How would you talk about your approach as a drummer to Jonas’ music and what that required of you, versus Aquarium Rescue Unit?
JS: Well, there’s a lot of similarities, actually. Both Jonas and Bruce (Hampton, founder and leader of the Aquarium Rescue Unit) demand playing yourself, playing your soul. For example, there were times years ago playing with Aquarium Rescue Unit where we’d be in the middle of some fusion-oriented jam, playing a million notes at a million miles an hour, and Bruce would stop us right on stage and say, What is this? Berklee?! Then he would detune his guitar and play as abstract as he could, and we’d all laugh at ourselves and join him, because we realized we weren’t really playing ourselves. He wasn’t hearing us as much as he was hearing our influences. So he would challenge us to dig deeper and play ourselves all the time. And that was a huge opportunity and lesson working with Bruce. Jonas is the same way. He really wants to hear you try to get outside of yourself and play outside the box. So there’s a lot of similarities in the approaches with those two groups. Jonas, I think, really relishes the mysterious and loves to stay in that world where nothing is quite defined but always searching. Bruce has a little bit more humor, of course, in his stuff. A lot of it is just absurdities…especially the early Col. Bruce. But as far as a drummer approaching those two situations…playing with Bruce and playing with Jonas…there was a lot that was very similiar.
BM: And now in your own project, as you say, there’s more breath in your playing, it’s a little more open-ended, you’re capturing some of that ECM-ish quality. I wonder if you’re using an entirely different kit for this more airy, open-ended approach as opposed to what you played with Jonas.
JS: Same kit — bass drum, snare drum, one rack-mounted tom, one floor tom, and just a handful of cymbals. So it’s really just four drums. But yeah, on my album I didn’t want people to say, Look at that drummer! I wanted the listener to experience the group and the melody more than the chops of the drummer. So it wasn’t about me on this album, it was about trying to get some beauty back into the world. And I wanted to see, as a producer, how I would produce myself…step outside of myself as a player. There’s a lot more surrender on this album. There were times when I really wanted to take it out. On the group improvs you can kind of hear where there’s a chance for me to take it and run with it. But there’s a lot of surrender to what somebody else might suggest. I didn’t want to lead so much as a drummer on this project. I really just wanted to integrate myself into the group. Because everybody is such a great player on this album and there’s so many ideas that they bring to the table.
BM: I guess I was assuming that you played a bigger kick with Jonas and a smaller jazz kit on your own album.
JS: No for the past 12 years or so my kit has remained the same four-piece Sonor designer kit. They’re a fantastic set of drums and I feel very fortunate to play them. The cymbals are kind of mixed…mostly Zildjian.
BM: On the tune Six Degrees from your record, I get a distinct Bitches Brew kind of feel. Was that music at all an influence on you?
JS: Of course. That band Miles had during that period with Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea….they were the masters of open, free, spontaneous music. Six Degrees was a spontaneous group improv. We didn’t really talk about what we were going to do ahead of time, we just rolled tape and started. So none of it was preconceived. And there’s some magic moments there that I don’t think could’ve been composed. I love that when it works. For me, it’s so much more magical than a composed piece….just the reaction time of everybody and that whole ESP sense coming to the surface.
BM: What about this odd-metered funk tune Blues Zardog II?
JS: That’s one of Paul Hanson’s pieces. It’s in 7/8. Reminds me a little bit of some ‘70s Herbie Hancock stuff.
BM: Like Crossings…that band he had with Billy Hart and Buster Williams and Benny Maupin.
JS: Yeah, right. Awesome band.
BM: That whole ‘70s exploratory feel seems to have come back in favor with a lot of bands today, where they’re seeking that kind of openness and experimentation that existed then.
JS: Definitely. There’s a nice relaxed feeling with a lot of that music that I find very appealing. On Blue Zardog II, the melody plays for the last time and then there’s an outro that lasts a good while. But there’s some nice pointillism that happens there, with everybody just listening to each other and finding the different holes to play in. There again, it’s something that would be really difficult to compose but it happened magically and it’s just amazing.
BM: So a lot of the stuff here was first takes?
JS: Yeah, except for Atlas Shrugged. We did quite a few takes on that one before we realized we needed to slow it down. The original tempo seemed to be just a bit too hurried and rushed. I think we took like ten cuts of it before we realized that it would fit a whole lot better if we just relaxed a little. So it took a minute to get there. But once we did we knew it was the one. And Kofi’s flute solo on that take is just amazing!
BM: I also like that flute-violin call-and-response at the begining of Apparition.
JS: That was an improv as well. The third day we were able to go in and have a little more relaxed situation. So we did those prayers, which were the solos. And then we did some duets and trios. All Things Considered started out as a trio with bass, bassoon and percussion, and it’s another one of those things that happened magically. They were able to come up with the intro, the verse, chorus and outro all in one take. It was really very impressive sitting there in the control room listening to these geniuses at work. But that was a first take…a spontaneous thing that just happened. I love that when everybody’s listening and tunes just play themselves, seemingly. It’s really hard sometimes. It’s not often that you find players willing to put themselves out in that naked place.
BM: And then on the other side of the coin is a tune like Dirvish, which sounds like it’s pretty well composed going into the session.
JS: Definitely. The tunes that were pre-conceived and written before the session were Dirvish, Blue Zardog II, Osiris, Atlas Shrugged and Song For Emmi. Everything else is an improv.
BM: Where was this album recorded?
JS: In Atlanta at Ricky Keller’s old place called Southern Living At Its Finest. Ricky Keller was the bass player for Project Z. He also produced Bruce Hampton’s early works and played in the band The Late Bronze Age. Ricky was a cornerstone in the Atlanta music scene, a central figure for all of us in the Bruce Hampton camp. He was a dear friend who I miss greatly, along with Shawn. They both left this world within a month of each other last year, as I was doing this recording. I booked the time with Ricky at his studio and was just about to go in and record when he died. So the vibe was pretty sacred there.
BM: I remember seeing The Late Bronze Age in 1980 at the Mudd Club in New York. Bruce was doing some hilarious lounge singing shtick and he mimed smoking cigarettes through the whole set.
JS: Yeah, crazy stuff! And after the Late Bronze Age, a lot of that vibe was still there in the early edition of the ARU. It was a performance art group, in a way…a lot of antics and improv on stage, and music was really just a part of it. And little by little, the band got better and better and the music became more of the focal point rather than the performance art aspect. So the evolution of the band was from completely out, completely improv performance art to, in the end, a very tight band with a set list and rehearsed tunes and whatnot.
BM: What period of time did the ARU exist?
JS: 1989 to 1995. It was the Arkansas Tourists and then the Arkansas Florists, with about 15 different members coming through at different times before it finally settled into the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
BM: I remember seeing you play at the Ritz in New York in the early ‘90s. And Bruce was playing this strange instrument that looked like a mutant mandolin.
JS: He called it a chazoid. It was a guitar body and mandolin neck. And the first one, the strings were attached by nails hammered into the body. It was crazy. And Bruce was fond of telling us that he had to line up the pegs in a straight line, regardless of the tuning, before he could play. But he was a great one for getting us out of our boxes and challenging us. I remember he told Jimmy Herring once, Play an A for me Jimmy. So Jimmy played an A chord and Bruce says, No, no, no. I mean an A. So Jimmy gives him an A note and Bruce says, No, no, no…not an A note. The shape of an A on your neck. So Jimmy proceeds to play the letter of the alphabet, the way it’s shaped, on the neck. And it was completely out-sounding. Jimmy, I think, discovered the joy of ‘out’ that day, on a new level. Bruce was great to get us out of our trappings that way.
BM: What is Bruce up to now?
JS: Bruce is playing in a band called The Code Talkers. They’re real busy. They’re on the road all the time, mostly in the the Southeast.
BM: What about Jimmy Herring?
JS: Jimmy’s been playing with Phil Lesh for the last three years and then last year he got a chance to play with the Grateful Dead. He may or may not do that next year again. Jimmy and I are also playing in a group called Project Z.
BM: That’s a great group. I really liked that record you put out a few years ago (self-titled, on Terminus Records).
JS: Yeah, that was the first one with Ricky Keller on bass. And then we recorded the second one just before he died, and we got a chance to put Greg Osby on that too. So we have a new album coming out, and it’s really an assault. Completely over the top. It’s the most aggressive playing I’ve ever done on an album. It’s even a lot more aggressive than the trio with Hellborg and Lane.
JS: Yeah, it’s just nutty — odd time signatures and explosions and meltdowns and complete foldings…just disrespectful.
BM: When is that coming out?
JS: We’re shopping it now. We’d like to give Blue Note a chance at it and if they’re not interested maybe we can go some other route. But we have it, it’s mixed, it just needs to be heard and released. So that’s on the burner for this year.
BM: Well, I definitely need to hear that. Good luck with that. Anything else coming up?
JS: I’m cutting an album in San Francisco with T Lavitz, the keyboard player for the Dregs, and with Craig Erickson and Rob Wasserman. It’s going to be pretty wide open…a collaborative project.
BM: And meanwhile, there’s your own recording. Considering that everybody lives in different areas and also plays in other bands, is there a chance of doing gigs in support of this new record?
JS: We may do some festivals here and there, but as far as a touring band, it doesn’t seem likely.
BM: What other situations are you currently playing in?
JS: I’m playing with Susan Tedeschi. We have a new DVD out, which is the Austin City Limits show that we did last year. Jeff Coffin, the sax player from Bela Fleck…I’m on his new album (Bloom, Compass Records), so we’ll be touring that this year. And Shane Theriott, the guitar player for the Neville Brothers, started a group called The Grease Factor with Johnny Neel (formerly of the Allman Brothers) on keyboards, so there’ll be some things with that coming up this year. Also Jonas Hellborg, Paul Hanson and myself are doing a trio. We have an album coming out that was recorded live. I’m really excited about that. It sounds pretty strong. It was our debut concert. I had played with Hanson before and, of course, with Hellborg. But they had never met until that day. Basically, they talked about a few keys they wanted to play in, what felt comfortable, and that was about it…about five minutes of talking and then we hit the stage and played for about an hour and it just came together magically. That’ll be released this year.
BM: You seem incredibly active these days.
JS: Yeah, I’ve got myself spread out pretty thin so it’ll be tough just to be able to make it all work. But I’m really blessed that all these are creative projects that allow me to contribute as a player and as a composer. So they’re wonderful opportunities. As scattered as I feel sometimes, being spread so thin and doing so many different things, it really is a blessing.