Jeff Sipe , a.ka. Apt Q-258 – Inside “Improvision” and out
The phone rings, and it’s my friend, AbstractLogix’s founder, president, producer, mastermind, chief cook and bottle washer Souvik Dutta. He starts telling me some of the plans he has for the up-coming John McLaughlin tour. The conversation then turns to AbstractLogix Records latest release, Improvision. Featuring guitarist Alex Machacek, bassist Matthew Garrison, and drummer Jeff Sipe (aka Apt. Q-258), Improvision continues Souvik’s successful throw ’em in a room and see what happens approach to producing recording projects.
The twist on Improvision is: Alex and Jeff were meeting Matthew for the first time before the sessions; neither had played with him before. And due to scheduling issues, the musicians were only available for one weekend. And topping things off, over the course of the weekend they only tallied four hours together in the studio. The recording would be re-crafted and re-worked in post production by Alex.
You want me to write a review? I asked, already thinking up adjectives to describe how much I liked the CD. No, Souvik says, I was wondering if you could interview Jeff Sipe?…….Me??
I became a fan of Jeff’s drumming after hearing his work as a trio with the late-great guitarist Shawn Lane and bass phenom Jonas Hellborg. I would defy anyone to listen to the title track of their Time Is The Enemy CD, and not be blown away by the sheer visceral energy they were capable of producing. And the bootlegs of the band, prized by traders, offer testimony to their level of musicianship and intensity. But I didn’t know a lot about Jeff’s life and music pre-Lane/Hellborg. You’ll want to check out www.jeffsipe.org to get Jeff’s complete bio and discography.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Jeff in 2005. He is a super nice guy with a spiritual sense about life, as well as drumming; which is right up my alley. So would I interview Jeff?……I would LUV to interview Jeff!
Rod: Have you heard the final version of the Improvision CD?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah, I have.
Rod: And what do you think of it?
Jeff: Matt and Alex are just geniuses and so virtuosic at what they do. I’m so proud to be on the CD with those masters. I wish that I had met them when I was a teenager; it took me ’til I was 48 to find them.
Rod: How did the project come about? Did you get a phone call, just out-of-the-blue, from Souvik saying, Hey, I got an idea?
Jeff: That’s exactly how it happened: What do you think? What do you think about this idea?…..Well first, my introduction to Alex Machacek was in India, of all places. Souvik invited me over to be a part of his wedding – which is a terrific honor – and arranged a festival where Alex and I could play together. So we worked on a few tunes. Alex had sent me some sheet music of Austin Powers and other things of his; which is some of the most impossible music I’ve ever heard to try to pull off. So I was immediately challenged. This is the kind if music I’ve always wanted to do; always heard in my head. So it was a gift. Alex’s music also raised the bar with my own playing. Because that stuff is so advanced that it takes a lot of technique to pull it off. But at the same time, he’s got melody going through the whole thing. It’s not just exercises in music and virtuosity. His music is really beautiful; absolutely beautiful melodies. It’s hard to do that. The chance to play with him in India is how I kinda bonded with Alex. And then Souvik said, What do you think about Matt? Let’s do a trio. I said, Oh my God, yeah. Matt I had heard just a little bit before, so I’m really a newcomer to his playing. And I’m so impressed.
Rod: Since this was your first time meeting Matt, what was the personal and musical chemistry like?
Jeff: Oh, it was really relaxed. Matt made everybody feel like we had been hangin’ out a long time. He made everybody feel real comfortable. As far as bass and drums, that’s a relationship that usually has to take time to really solidify into one mind. And he made that happen right away. I can’t say enough about his playing. It’s so unique and so different. It’s playing bass, but so much more than that.
Rod: How do you approach a situation like that? Do you have to adjust your drumming to the individual’s playing style in order to develop that relationship as a rhythm section?
Jeff: For me, it was establishing some kind of a tempo and feel, and then looking for the themes. It was more about listening to what was happening, working with the ideas that were being thrown out, and just call-and-response theme and variation. From the theme and variations, I try to improvise something that sounds like it’s been written. Also, I’m listening for what the music wanted to do. I mean, we all want to do our thing, but the music dictates what it wants, too. So it’s a fine line you walk when you want to get a lot of you own ideas out. But you have to surrender in every second to the possibility of the music writing itself. It’s a real Zen thing when you think about it.
Rod: Let’s talk more about your approach to the sessions. If Alex was more of a blues style player, would that have changed the way you would have played, in terms of reacting to him?
Jeff: Oh sure. Oh sure, yeah of course. And also, I had to keep in mind how Souvik wanted the project. He wanted something that was accessible to the people; something that could groove. But at the same time, he wanted the shredding thing; he wanted people to play. He also wanted people to dance to it if they wanted to. So I had to keep that in mind. For me, it was a perfect balance of art and music, with kind of an accessible feeling.
Rod: The sessions took place very quickly, so you didn’t have a lot of time to feel each other out.
Jeff: That’s true, yeah. We had just a few hours, really, to do the whole thing.
Rod: Even ECM artists had at least two or three days to make a record [chuckles].
Jeff: Yeah. Three full days would have been perfect.
Rod: How did the material come together?
Jeff: The first song on the CD There’s A New Sheriff In Town, that was an improv. The second one Along Came A Spider, that was a composition that we improvised on; but it had been sketched already. To Whom It May Concern, was an improvised piece. I think most of them were improv’s. Matt’s Riff was a theme we came up with just accenting the end of the phrase, keeping the rhythm thing going.
Rod: That’s my favorite track. It really showcases what I like about your playing; the stuff you put between the beat, and the way you shift the rhythm.
Jeff: It’s such a magical thing to be a part of a group of creative people, just doing something spontaneous and surrendering to the moment. That’s so cool, man.
Rod: Alex has a different approach to making music and recording. And his guitar playing has a bit of quirkiness to it. Did you prepare for any curveballs in his music?
Jeff: No, not so much. He’s really organized. He came really prepared, and he had some of the pieces worked. He knew what he wanted, and just worked with what he got. He did a skeleton part for himself. It wasn’t so much about playing the solo that was going to make the album, then. It was, All right, I’m gonna have a framework here. I’m gonna set up a framework, and then I’m gonna go back and fill it in. So I could see that’s where he was coming from, and was just so pleased with what came out. It’s a great way to do it: come on in and set up the framework. Just do what needs to be done at that level, first.
Rod: Did you find yourself holding back at first, and then opening up as the sessions went on?
Jeff: Well, I wanted to be careful enough not to mess things up. Like, Aww Jeff, get it right! So I wanted to be safe enough to go for the stuff I knew. But at the same time I challenged myself a little bit to react spontaneously and instantaneously. So you never know what will happen. I was listening to some Keith Jarrett Trio last night, that’s a wonderful model for an improvising band.
Rod: Oh yeah. Those guys are telepathic in their playing with each other at this point.
Jeff: What I was trying to achieve on Improvision was what I perceive Jarrett’s trio to be doing: which is kind of dancing across the music with each other. Because of the way they interact with each other, they don’t get in each others way. But at the same time, they don’t hesitate to play any of their ideas. They’ve got a wonderful way to play really intricately, without being dense. It’s all transparent, but it’s moving all the time, too.
Rod: Does the role of the rhythm section get skewed a little when you’re in a situation where there’s collective improvisation going on? You’re not really supporting a soloist in a traditional sense.
Jeff: In the group’s that I’ve played with that have been the most experimental, there isn’t really a set order of solos. That’s kind of just taken – or given – on the spot. It might make sense to follow a bass solo with a drum solo, or it might not; it might be the wrong thing to do. In the improv world, every second counts. You just listen to the music and be ready to be supportive when needed. The soloist kind of surfs the music. If music was a wave, the improviser goes surfing. If you go against the wave, then it smacks you. Music does the same thing. I’ve been crushed by musical waves when I’ve gone against it. [Jeff plays the Improvision CD in the background]
Rod: So Alex stripped down the tracks and re-recorded most of his stuff?
Jeff: It was really stripped down, man. I think where 100% of what I did at that moment is on the album, only a small percentage of their stuff is. I think 90% of Alex’s stuff was re-done. Matt laid down a lot of the bottom stuff; and did some solo stuff, so that we could work it later. Alex did a really good job making it seem like everybody was calling and responding at the same time. He would set me up, and he’d use the rhythms that I laid down to create different scenarios for us.
Rod: Let’s listen to track 10, Matt’s Riff.The way you support Matt’s solo on that track; your accents are just so smooth. And the rhythm patterns really excite my ears. That’s what I love about your playing.
Jeff: Thanks. I tried to lift it up a little bit to get away from 2&4. America is obsessed with 2&4. All my life I’ve been hearing over the bar lines. Like broad rhythms, but filled in. So there’d be lots of notes in-between, but there’d be a broad – lots of dotted quarter notes, dotted eighth notes, dotted half notes…
Rod: Yeah, those rhythmic shifts.
Jeff: [listening to Matt’s Riff] Well, I drop it into a half-time and adding and-a-4. I think it loosens it up a bit, kind of makes it a little bit happier; without getting in the way too much.
Rod: I was thinking that if Dennis Chambers was on this piece, it would just be all BOOM. Not taking anything away from Dennis, but it’s that lightness and finesse that you have that’s really a strength.
Jeff: Thanks. I had some good teachers along the way, man. Dave Palamer showed me some things I’m still working on. In high school I studied with him; I took six lessons with him. And he explained some of the classical technique. And wow, what a difference it made!
Rod: As you’re refining your technique over the years: are you taking out, or are you adding in?
Jeff: Oh both, both. It’s like a marble sculpture, man. It’s either a block of marble or it’s a blank canvas; you gotta cut away or add to it [chuckles]. [Still listening to Matt’s Riff] Okay, for instance right here, after the bass solo there’s a guitar solo. And I’m really busy on it. Because I didn’t know what was gonna be goin’ down at the time. And I felt like, these guys need something to work with, and it needs to be elevated here. I’m playing my heart out here, trying to give them some stuff to work with; knowing full well that when we get the CD back none of the things I’m hearing will be on there except for the basic framework. So I was like, okay, here’s an idea; here’s a rhythm, here’s a theme. And then sure enough, Alex heard it and wrote music to it. That’s what Jonas Hellborg did on Good People In Times Of Evil. He got [Indian percussionist] Selvaganesh in a hotel room, laid down the albums worth of drum tracks – just drum compositions – and then wrote music to that. Then Shawn Lane came in on top of that and put the melody on. So it was stacked, based on drum compositions.
Rod: When you see the names on the new CD, you assume a lot of cranking is gonna happen. Yet some of the tracks are very melodic pieces with subtle dynamics.
Jeff: We do crank on a few tunes. I can only speak for my own view: when I think about Matt and Alex, they’re such mature players that although they can play a zillion notes, they do it in a way that’s really mature and expressive and melodic. And they take their time. I think there are a lot of notes on the CD, but it’s not like a…
Rod: Like a shredder’s chops-fest?
Jeff: …yeah, yeah.
Rod: Heeey, ain’t nothin’ wrong with a chops-fest every now and then.
Rod: I mean, we both go back to the fusion from the ’70s.
Jeff: That’s right.
Rod: I know this a wide-ranging question, but can you put into words your relationship with music?
Jeff: That is a tough question because music takes over where words end. In the full spectrum of human expression, words only account for a slice of the whole pie. The rest of it, for me, lies in the psychic realm and music. I think that’s the land of ESP, and it’s the land of intention. Intention is instantly revealed in the first note that you play. It’s hard to put it into words. But I think my relationship to music is – it’s divine. It’s sacred enough to pursue my own art; while I try to make a living doing it. I think I’ve found a really good spot, a good space. So I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. My relationship to music is kind of like a Father-Mother-God thing rolled up into one. I feel safe there.
Rod: Do you feel that being a musician – I’m gonna change that word. Do you feel that being a drummer is a calling?
Jeff: Yeah, definitely. Music is a calling. Drums are the instrument I chose because I guess I feel like I could more easily do that than anything else. And it’s just so much fun to get behind a kit! It’s just a blast! I can’t think of a safer way to pass the time [chuckles]. It’s just awesome. You don’t get into trouble. You’re not responsible for anything breaking. You’re not getting into trouble doin’ naughty things. You’re just playing [laughs].
Rod: Do you see yourself as part of a new movement?
Jeff: Perhaps, yeah. I’m just so surprised. I look around and I go, How did I get here? This is really a wonderful CD, with beautiful musicians. Rhythmically we doing some new things – I mean, it’s really not new. In the classical world, composer Edgar Verase, he’s been using great rhythms for a long, long time. But it hasn’t worked into modern electric radio music [chuckles]…
Rod: Yeah, well, nothing has, given the current state of radio programming.
Jeff: …some of the odd groupings and stuff that Frank Zappa wrote in his music and Steve Vai was so great at playing. And now there’s Alex playing the next level of that, taking that and just really making it his own thing.
Rod: In general, do you see a trend of musicians wanting not to over play because of the bad word fusion has become and it being a “chops” oriented type of music?
Jeff: You mean is there a perception among musicians these days that maybe they shouldn’t shred so much like in the old days?
Rod: Yeah, that’s what I should have said.
Jeff: Well, no. I think it’s more career based, or something like that. It’s like, how am I going to make a living playing the stuff I know?
I mean, look at John McLaughlin, it seems that he’s never compromised his music at all. It’s always been exactly what he wanted to play. Shredding stuff, or sensitive, beautiful stuff; electronic stuff, or acoustic stuff. Whatever it is, I can’t imagine him ever selling out. Music’s too sacred for him.
So I think there are different levels of that in every musician. Music is many things to many people. And the people whose soul really needs to get that stuff out – I say celebrate your demons. McLaughlin is actually celebrating his demons…
Rod: That’s a great way to put it!
Jeff: …put ’em out there in an artistic form, and turn it into beauty. Turn it into absolute beauty!
Rod: How are you expressing your own music? Are you writing more for your own trio, or collaborating?
Jeff: We’re doing some improvs, but we’re doing some standards as well; some modern stuff. We have more tunes that we do than we have improvs. We’re picking some really hip covers and some standards, and trying to do some new things with them that way. I’m practicing some things. I’ve been working on this 32-bar tihai [in Indian music, like a cadenza that is played three times]. We’re gonna work it into this band that I’ve got going on now. We’ve been driving around from gig to gig just kind of reciting it, practicing it that way. It’s really fun, it’s a challenge; like a tongue twister.
Rod: That’s what Indian drummers do. They’re able to sing a rhythm pattern before they play it.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s the trick. If you can sing it, you can play it, that’s the phrase.
Rod: Along those lines: I relate your playing with tabla players, in that their drumming is not bombastic. The lightness in your drumming allows you to hear all of the drums at a consistent level.
Jeff: Thanks. I’ve been working on that. In the early years, I was probably hitting real hard. My Grandma used to say, You still beating the hell out of those drums? when she would see me. And I always kept that in mind. I thought, Yeah, I don’t have to hit these things so hard. I’ll work on my technique a little bit. That’s why I love playing in this acoustic trio I’ve got going on right now. We can play at a whisper; bring out the brushes and play real delicate in a listening room. So I’m really enjoying that.
Rod: When you were in India, how did you relate to drumming as a Western musician?
Jeff: It’s a classical art form. It’s like the highest level of playing, writing, and imagination.
Rod: Drumming is a divine art in India.
Jeff: Yeah. I got the feeling that it’s treated as a sacred art form. And really developed, I mean incredibly. Rhythmically and melodically some of the most developed ideas of any culture that I’ve heard. The West seems to have the harmony, the East seems to have the rhythm. Put that together, it’s just wonderful.
That’s why I love McLaughlin for his contributions; and Trilok Gurtu for his. The East meets West, I think more of that is going to happen. It’s really exciting to think about the future of music. Because with the globalization of music it’s going to be the best of the harmony, the best of the rhythm, and the best of the melody. And hopefully, the best of the soul.
Rod: I first met Souvik in Montreal in 2005. I go to his hotel room, and he’s playing some music. Souvik asks, What do you think of this? I didn’t know it at the time, but he was playing some Lane/Hellborg/Sipe. Now I played guitar, and Shawn Lane is just wailing away doin’ some blistering stuff on this tune. But I say to Souvik, That’s cool. Who’s the drummer? True story [laughs]!
Jeff: That’s funny. We had some good times. I remember flyin’ – the sensation of flyin’ like an eagle. That hasn’t happened much. Actually, a lot more these days. But specifically with Shawn. Sometimes we’d just be playing a duet – you know the trio sometimes played solos and duets as well as the trio thing. I remember just feelin’ like a bird, like an eagle just soaring, man. It sounds corny to say, but I know what that saying feels like now, having done it with Shawn. Just awesome.
Rod: Lane/Hellborg/Sipe was a very special group to a lot of people, and listeners mainly associate your playing with that group. Is it hard to move musically beyond that band with fans? Is it a monkey on your back in a sense?
Jeff: Oh no no, not at all! It’s like a calling card. It’s some of the best stuff that I’ve been a part of. I love those guys. I love their music. It was a thrill to be a part of that band. I think it helps elevate my playing. These situations like the Lane/Hellborg thing and this Improvision CD: playing with that caliber of musician helps elevate your playing a lot faster than just sitting in a practice room or playing gigs around town.
Rod: Is there a way to compare the two?
Jeff: It comes back to intention. There are a million reasons why any musician would pick up an instrument. I’m convinced there’s gotta be at least a million reasons. I’ve been lucky enough to play with some musicians who make it a language; who understand it as a language. And they will call and respond; they will allow for space in their music – and in their playing – for interaction with musicians. And then there are other musicians who just do their thing; and you’re pretty much just gonna lay the rug down for them to do their thing……So when I’m playing with different musicians: whatever it is, it is. You can’t make it what it’s not. So if it’s a thing where you have to lay the rug down and let everybody play on it, that’s great. If it’s a thing where you’re on a surfboard and everybody else on the surfboard is riding the same wave, that’s another feeling. Or if it’s flying like an eagle, like with Shawn Lane, that’s another kind of thing. But you can’t do that with everybody…..So, it is what it is. And when you’re there, whatever your intention is, it’s instantly revealed.
Rod: How have your musician’s ears changed since the Lane/Hellborg days?
Jeff: Well, I think I understand better now what it means to be a support player. I know better now how to interact with musicians and play what the song needs. And at the same time, put a spark in it and lift it up a little bit; give it some life [chuckles]. And have a good time with the people I’m with.
Rod: In terms of technique: how do you hear yourself when you play?
Jeff: How do I hear myself in my own playing?
Rod: Yeah. Like if I describe the tone I’m going for when I play I say light bottom and mids when I want it dark, bridge pickup and full treble when I’m on the high-gain and want it to growl.
Jeff: I like to hear my drums sound like a piano. With full resonance, clarity, sparkling high-end, nice rich full – but not muddy – bottom end.
Rod: When playing guitar, the instrument is against your body, and you can feel feedback and how the instrument responds through you. How does the resonance and feel of the drums transfer to a drummer since you’re not in intimate contact with them?
Jeff: Our ears are probably closer to the instrument sound source. We’re sitting down, the drums are up off the ground; so automatically your head is two or three feet away from the hi-hat, snare drum, crash cymbals, all that stuff, but it can be a really loud, loud instrument. The challenge is to blend the four limbs into the rhythm where you have dimension, a 3-D sound. Like you have some soft stuff, medium stuff, and some louder stuff; all within the beat. Or at times, everything is the same volume. But trying to blend each drum or cymbal into the instrument as a whole – because sometimes I’m playing a six-piece kit, and you have two cymbals and a hi-hat, two crashes, maybe two rides; so there’s a lot of sounds right there. And I to try to make it sound like one instrument, like together; getting them to blend. So I try to hear myself blending in with either myself or whatever is happening right now. And also, playing to the room. I get real sensitive to the room, man.
Rod: Like the acoustics of the room?
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. I have to play in a lot of high end places. Places that have glass and brick and wood. Tile ceilings, metal ceilings. You don’t have to turn up in those places; don’t even need a P.A. I find myself really sensitive to the volume in the room.
Rod: Is there a dream list of musicians that you would like to do a project like Improvision with?
Jeff: A dream list of musicians to play with? Gee, I dare not dream some things because I just don’t think I’m even ready for it. I’m still a practicing musician, an evolving musician, you know.
Rod: Yeah, but all you modest guys say that.
Rod: C’mon now [chuckles].
Jeff: I aspire to converse musically with the likes of Holdsworth, Jarrett, Bill Frisell; just so many. Metheny. It would be just awesome to be able to hangout with Michael Brecker; now he’s moved on.
Rod: Yeah, that’s a huge loss.
Jeff: I had a chance to play with Danny Gatton. There wasn’t a specific date or anything. But I had a chance to talk with him once, and told him I really wanted to play with him. So I felt like that could have happened. He’s moved on, as well. But that would have been a thrill, man.
Rod: Is there anything that you wanted to talk about? Any topic like, If I had a chance to say something…
Jeff: Yeah. I think Souvik and his team, his lovely wife Shweta, and Powa, all the people that work with him; I think what they’re doing is really, really awesome. I mean, he’s only been around for a couple of years but it’s made such a difference to so many people. I love what AbstractLogix has done for world music, what they’ve done for so many artists: giving them a chance to put anything they want out there as long as it’s pure and genuine. Souvik’s really helped out so many people. I just want to say thanks a lot to AbstractLogix. I think they’re doing a really wonderful thing for the planet. The planet without AbstractLogix isn’t quite as joyful to me.
Rod: Amen to that!