“I didn’t realize you could still do that”

–          Kate, after my first gig with Henry Lugo and Vinnie Sperrazza

As a musician, it is a treat whenever the opportunity arises to play with someone who brings out your best. It is, however, a rare and special confluence when you can play with someone who brings out a “best” that you otherwise wouldn’t have even known was in there. So it has gone for ten years now with the members of my Trio, Henry Lugo and Vinnie Sperrazza.

In the fall of 2002 I played for the first time with Henry. I had resurrected my jazz performance career after a few dark years of physical uncertainty (would I be able to keep playing? If so, through how much pain?) and geographic isolation (CT ain’t that remote, but it felt that way at the time). I’d begun playing extremely low-pressure trio gigs (mostly Sunday brunches at Middletown’s It’s Only Natural Restaurant) with the bassist Tyler Goodwin and the drummer George Mastrogiannis, both music students at the time. These gigs were fun and provided me with some much-needed momentum and, for that matter, hope.

When Tyler left for grad school, I went through a number of bassists, some of them very much works in progress, some of them more solid (big ups to Nick Tardif and Sean McClowry) and some of them highly professional but comparatively unavailable (it was great to play with my old pal Bob Hart once in a while, but coming from NY or NJ for a little brunch gig was not often feasible). Then for one gig George suggested Henry Lugo. My expectations were extremely low, simply because other such suggestions had not always worked out so well. To top it off, this was the first gig at a new venue and all my keyboard gear was stolen days beforehand, so I was going to be playing on a crappy synthesizer through an underpowered amp on a borrowed keyboard stand. I was prepared to go through the motions, but it wound up being one of the most fortuitous gigs of my life. Tune after tune the bass playing was both rock-solid and right in the wheelhouse of my personal bass-playing preferences. His sound was huge too, though that didn’t hit me immediately because I didn’t realize at the time how little he was using the amp. It also didn’t hit me immediately (how could it, after all?) that music aside, this was the genesis of one of the most solid and nourishing friendships I would ever experience. Thanks, broseph.

Fast forward to early 2004, and I had a gig in NJ, my first there in four years, after having it be my home base musically and otherwise for most of the ‘90s. George was unavailable as well as being in the midst of a transition away from jazz drumming as a primary focal point. My old pal Sunny Jain (himself semi-knowingly planting the seeds of what would become the amazing band Red Baraat) was unavailable, so I figured I’d take a chance and call Vinnie. I’d met Vinnie in 1998 when I was finishing up grad school at Rutgers and he, as a high school senior, came to audition. I was pretty involved in interacting with (and, usually, running jam sessions for) auditioning students, and always kept my poker face on . . . but this was the one time that I “broke character” and said “whoa, you sound GREAT and demanded contact information. I kept in touch a bit with him and with his dad, Vince, himself a drummer and all-around swell guy who would bring Vinnie to come listen and sit in when my band at the time would play in Syracuse (a not insignificant hike from their home in Utica). Through Vince and through perusing the interweb, I knew that Vinnie was playing a fair amount as a sideman with James Williams. Given my love for James and his music, this was about as strong a seal of approval as I could ask for, so I asked him to do the gig.

As with Henry (and buoyed by the shared compatibility among the three of us), I was immediately taken aback that night (I don’t even remember the name of the place!) both by his skill level and by the compatibility. The funny thing is that as Vinnie has become prolific both as a sideman and as a bandleader (click here to check out more of his stuff) I have seen the serendipity of our partnership. Part of that is simply catching him before he became less accessible, and part of that is stylistic, in that he’s so versatile that I seldom hear him doing in other bands (including his own) the specific things that my music demands and that he delivers so authoritatively.

But that night, all I knew was that I was experiencing a musical rebirth due to the synergy of playing with Henry and Vinnie. My wife’s comment from the beginning of this post was true for me too – things that I literally thought to be permanently beyond me on a basic physical level were flowing out. I felt like I could go anywhere rhythmically or harmonically and be lifted up and carried along like a surfer catching a great wave. And if I didn’t need to take it anywhere “challenging,” the music would be soulful and in that sweet spot of intense-yet-tasteful. Rather than being bored by the relative stasis of ballads, they put their souls into them. Rather than eye-rolling the potentially generic nature of a medium-tempo blues, they play like the groove is the most immediate thing in the universe at that moment. When we play my music I know they’ll give it precisely the care it needs. When we play the most hackneyed standards, they breathe life into them, so much so that I will sometimes purposely call the tunes with which I struggle the most and/or am the most sick of, just to continue challenging that track record.

They’ve played on my Soul Force, Bliss and Know Thyself albums (not to mention Playdate, the cooperative group of which we are all members) and it was a real no-brainer to have them tackle some of the challenging material on Ripples. They didn’t get a ton of solo space (one song apiece) and didn’t let their egos enter into any of that. While it’s nice to play with other people sometimes, it’s also remarkable how little wanderlust I have with this group. That’s a blessing in and of itself.


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