The Apartments in the house | AspenTimes.com

The Apartments in the house

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Drummer Jeff Sipe appears this week in Aspen, this time as a member of Keller Williams & the WMDs. (Rick Malkin)
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In Nashville, in the 1980s, was a self-styled preacher, who broadcast his radio sermons live from his apartment. The preacher was a bit of a scoundrel; hed invite listeners up to join him, pray with him and always request that they bring a gift of some sort to leave behind. The sermons became an underground hit, especially among the vast community of musicians in Nashville; newgrass pioneer Sam Bush would tape the broadcasts and distribute them to his buddies.The preachers name, colorful enough, was Prophet Omega. But what stuck in the head of Col. Bruce Hampton, a Southern singer and guitarist known for his unique take on the world, was not the preachers name, but his location: Building Q, on Nashvilles Lamont Drive, apartment number 258. Hampton liked it enough that he affixed it to one of his musical associates. And thus a drummer named Jeff Sipe became Apt. Q-258, a name invariably used in press releases and even on the covers of his own CDs.Bruce died laughing from those sermons and the very idea of Prophet Omega, said Sipe by phone from his home in the hills of North Carolina. He said to me, Youre the apartment. Bruces mind is in a strange place. Most everybody whos worked with him received an alias, a nickname. I got an address.Sipe got more than an address from Hampton. Sipe got his first big boost in the music world through his association with Hampton, particularly from his membership in Hamptons short-lived but memorable and influential group, Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit. At least some of his musical eclecticism can be traced to Hamptons vision, which encompassed jazz, old-school rock n roll, blues and bluegrass. And theres no mistaking that the years spent with Hampton have played a part in the spiritual perspective Sipe has developed with regard to making music.In its core form which included guitarist Jimmy Herring (now with Widespread Panic), bassist Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers Band), and mandolinist Matt Mundy (retired), plus Sipe and Hampton The Aquarium Rescue Unit lasted only from 1988-1993 and recorded just two albums, one of those a live, self-titled debut. But in a quiet way, it laid the template for later jam bands that thought nothing of cramming bluegrass, funk and electronica together. And it made its mark on Sipe in ways that went beyond the musical.Its been one of the greatest vehicles for my personal development, said Sipe, who carried on in the post-Hampton ARU, which lasted till 1997. Its given me a sense of myself. And a gift, of being able to hone my craft and offer back to the world, and back to God, the great experience of music and friendship. I feel really lucky.Sipe still participates in occasional ARU reunion gigs with Hampton onboard, playing his chazoid, a miniaturized guitar that usually take place in Atlanta, the bands former base.Stylistic jumbleFor an outsider, getting a sense of Sipe the drummer, is a bit tricky. Most prominently, he is or has been a member of several bands that fall roughly within the jam-band realm: the ARU, Colorados Leftover Salmon, Jazz Is Dead, Trey Anastasios band. The latest project to draft him is Keller Williams & the WMDs; Sipe will appear in Aspen when the group plays a two-night stand, Thursday and Friday, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, at Belly Up Aspen. (On the first of those nights, Sipe turns 49.)Despite some similarities in approach, those bands require different things of the drummer. Leftover Salmon, which has concluded its days of hard touring but still plays shows now and again, is built on bluegrass. Jazz Is Dead, now out of commission, put an instrumental fusion spin on the material of the Grateful Dead. The ARU was a mad jumble of styles.The WMDs presents a unique challenge. The group is led by Williams, a singer-songwriter who performs most often as a solo act a one-man band using looping techniques and an arsenal of instruments to create a full-band sound. Having only himself to contend with, Williams plays with off-kilter rhythms and uncommon song constructions. The WMDs including bassist Keith Moseley, of String Cheese Incident, and guitarist Gibb Droll have to adapt to a musician whos not so accustomed to the backing of a band.There are so many twists and turns to his songs, said Sipe, who has recorded with Williams. Every solo artist develops a unique sense of song, timing, development and pacing. So getting inside his head is fascinating, to see how his music works. Hes a scientist. He knows how to hold a crowd. And it can be very powerful or very gentle.The aforementioned groups are only the best-known of the projects Sipe has been a part of. He spent a solid year and a half in a jazz trio with Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg and the late guitarist Shawn Lane. Sipe recalls it as one of the most artful, musical, healing jazz experiences Ive ever had. We had a transcendent time. His current high-minded jazz project features Viennese guitarist Alex Machacek and bassist Matthew Garrison (son of the late Jimmy Garrison, a member of John Coltranes famed quartet). That trio last year released Improvision, named one of Downbeat magazines best albums of 2007. The Grease Factor, a group that features Neville Brothers guitarist Shane Theriot, has released a pair of albums. Next week, he is scheduled to finish recording an album with Aquarium Rescue Unit mates Herring and Burbridge, along with guests, including Hampton.I feel like Im being conducted, said Sipe, with no remorse, of his numerous affiliations. A lot of the things Ive done, I havent sought out. Im just being pulled in by lots of great musicians.New era, new soundtrackSuch is the lot of many drummers. Rarely the singer or the songwriter, the drummer finds himself being invited into other musicians projects. Sipe who has also released several CDs under his own name, including the 2004 studio album Timeless was zealous in his choice of instrument. Born in Germany to American parents, Sipe was asked to pick an instrument for the band his sixth-grade class in Frankfurt was putting together. Though he had taken piano lessons and sang some, the drums were calling.Drums hit me hard. I got hooked right away, said Sipe. I think it was the normal teenage angst. (This might have had something to do with his family situation. When I asked what his parents were doing in Germany, Sipe responded, Who knows?)Drums are cheaper than a shrink, he continued. Its a therapeutic thing as much as an art form. Being able to hit something that wont hit you back thats a valuable thing.Sipe moved back to the States, to Fairfax, Va., for ninth grade, and brought his passion with him. After high school, he attended Bostons Berklee College of Music. After a year, he left, opting for real-life jamming over studying. A childhood friend, keyboardist Dan Matarazzo, suggested he join him in Atlanta, where there were lots of gigs to be had. Sipe relocated and jumped into the more artistic ends of the Atlanta scene.Id always been leaning toward more of the expressive genres world, jazz, classical, he said. Ive always tried to blend all that stuff. It was all interesting.In the mid-80s, another keyboardist friend, Dan Wall, invited Sipe to join him for a wedding gig. Sipe knew from the outset it wasnt going to be the typical wedding band, but he didnt realize just how adventurous an outing it would be. At the center of the experience was Bruce Hampton, a retired Army colonel who bragged of having made, with his Hampton Grease Band, the second worst-selling album on the Columbia Records label.Here we were playing in the mountains of Georgia, playing beautiful, sophisticated music, recalled Sipe. And all of a sudden, Dan looks over at Bruce, tells him to take a solo and he played the most-out stuff imaginable. I thought, Oh, God, sabotage! And Wall is laughing, and trying to harmonize, so Bruce wont sound so out there.There was this genius going on between the two of them. It was the funniest, most brilliant thing Ive seen. I was completely blown away, but for reasons most people would find absurd. Hes such a funny guy.Sipe has encountered a less surreal form of craziness as a member of Leftover Salmon, fronted by the theatrical, humorous Vince Herman. At all the festivals we played, we were the kings of the festival, said Sipe. The Leftover gig also provided an opportunity to experiment with rhythmic ideas. I got a chance to practice my bebop jazz. Those burning bluegrass tempos are really a lot like the fast jazz stuff, that two-beat stuff. I like crossing that bridge in my mind.Sipe has his eye on another project, one he is pursuing with Jeff Coffin, saxophonist with Bla Fleck & the Flecktones. He calls it a miniature big band, with a horn section and multiple singers, but hip. Pushing the boundaries a little more than a traditional big band, he said.The Bush era is just about over. New millennium, new era. We need a new soundtrack for that. So Im trying to pull in the players for that.stewart@aspentimes.com


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