Versatile, musically immersed and bursting with a backlog of material yet to be released, tenor sax player Peter Sparacino says it’s because he came late to the party. His incredibly productive catch-up scheme has him in two ensembles: one, called Anouman, as co-leader (creating some killer, strong-spirited gypsy jazz) and the other called Orkestra Eustoria which has funk, heart and groove, and whose latest CD “HyperGiant Hi-Fi” presents contemporary musings on the imagery of the Space Age. Included on that album are “Epicity,” a waltzy piece (somehow accomplished not in ¾ time) punctuated by blissful moments of hemiola; “The Hustle” with its yummy harmonies; “Blinker Sync,” a playground of meter madness with a jolting statement from electric guitar; and the kinda-klezmer wild ride of “Folk Song.”
Talk about the first time you heard jazz.
I honestly can’t quite remember the very first encounter! I had a heavily classical musical start (I played clarinet in youth symphonies starting in fifth grade) and I remember that in the jazz band it looked like you got to play your instrument much more than in the symphony, where a performance often involved counting “1, 2, 3, 4. Tooooot!” I was also drawn to the fact that musicians outside of classical music rarely had any sheet music and seemed to have lot more freedom in musical situations.
It really began with an attraction to the freedom of it all. I discovered the actual music after that.
Talk about the first time you picked up a sax.
I was a proficient clarinet player in high school and at the urging of my fantastic band director picked up the tenor saxophone. The first time playing the tenor was not love at first sight, as my clarinet embouchure produced a lot of bleeps and bloops that I was convinced were the saxophone’s fault (still a good scapegoat by the way).
I remember hearing my very first saxophone teacher, who has coincidentally been touring with Tower of Power for the last decade-plus, play his tenor in a small room for the first time and the sound was such an all-encompassing, resonant, incredible knockout punch compared to the clarinet that I immediately wanted to get onboard. I began working my way back through the discography of tenor players soon after that, trying to figure out how to operate the damn thing, and it was pretty much a go from that point on. The music, culture of the music, and the colorful personalities were, and still are, incredibly captivating.
What was the most helpful part of your formal music education?
I feel lucky that from high school through college I had such a motivated group of peers and teachers. There’s not much more to ask for than the support system of a dedicated group of fantastic people all pursuing the same goal.
What did you have to learn on your own?
In music, most of the elements in your playing or writing that make other people want to listen to you are things that you discover on your own. Teachers and peers can give the broad strokes and essential insight at roadblocks, but a lot of music is figuring out how your own inner mechanisms tick and thus how to practice and compose to make it feel and sound right.
It continues to be both the struggle and the reward to keep making forward progress, although the inspiration and new approaches from peers is 100% invaluable to that goal.
Where do you go in your head when you compose? When you play?
Composition-wise, I really try and put myself in the audience down to the point where I imagine I paid $10-20 cover, am holding a beer, and I am in a (hopefully crowded!) room listening to the band. I play the song in my head from that perspective and see which parts would click, what feeling I would want next in the song, what parts would bore me and make me want to scroll through Twitter, etc. I’ll also loop song sections on my computer and try out different chords, rhythms or melodies until one feels right.
I’ve also tried lately spending less time initially on each composition in the early stages. There was this urge early on that if I was going to spend any time working on a new tune it should at least get to a point where I could run it through with the band. This approach led to a lot of time spent on ideas that didn’t necessarily merit it. Ideas are cheap, and I think it’s important to just keep the lights in the factory on even if you end up writing some tunes you’ll never play (which you should obviously not spend as much time on as they reveal themselves to be duds). Every now and then something will line up and you’ll get a keeper. You can go all in with the details after that.
When I play, usually too much is going on in my head. More and more I’m trying to let my ears and fingers do their thing, make sure beat one is always in there and just get out of the way.
When did you form Orkestra Eustoria?
It formed over a period of time, but came together as more of band about six months before the album came out. The band is all about the strengths of the personnel, as in I wanted and still want to (!) write some music so I can play with these guys! Without going person by person their strengths range from ridiculous alien-levels of ears, one-of-a-kind approaches to their instrument and music all-around badassery. Writing and playing music with this band is the ultimate musical sandbox.
“HyperGiant Hi-Fi” is an interesting title for a CD. What’s behind it?
Not too much actually! I’ve always been fascinated with the mind-boggling differences of scale in the universe and a hypergiant star is so incredibly vast compared to the sun, let alone our Earth, that human minds have difficulty comprehending it. And I always like Hi-Fi tagged onto titles and the internal sounds (assonance maybe?) fit, so it worked.
What inspires you about the Space Age?
Any time humans spend an inordinate amount of time pouring their ambitions and existence on this Earth into what could be considered frivolous or idealistic pursuits measured alongside day-to-day concerns, whether it’s becoming a Scrabble champion, building elaborate Rube Goldberg machines or ::cough:: playing saxophone and making albums, I’m all about it. The exploration of space seems to fall under this category as our daily lives are not very much affected by how many asteroids are cataloged (although there are some practical applications; yes, aka collisions) or whether we’ve found all the galaxies.
That idealistic pursuit in the face of the demands of real-world survival I have always found immensely fascinating.
A lot of colors and chordal intrigue in “Interlude 1.” What went into writing that song?
I really like this question. The interludes and outro I did not compose in the traditional sense of writing them down in full and then performing. Instead I created them through some combination of free-association layering while overdubbing myself and scratching out rough chordal guides as I tried things out real time. The first version I sent to Dave Binney, who produced the record, which he returned with a note to the effect that the chord colors I used were super bland. I kept the same framework and general melody but took a lot more chances with inner voices on the second pass and I much preferred the outcome, which is what you hear.
What track was the most fun or challenging?
All were challenging and fun in different ways (sorry for the non-answer!). “Le Bumpier” actually started life as almost a completely different tune that I scrapped most of recomposed heavily, which was very challenging trying to make something fit rather than starting fresh. I spent hours and weeks on some tunes and minutes on others. The melody to “Interdweller” I wrote in about twenty minutes, which is always gratifying when the tunes just appear.
How long in the making was this album?
Too long! Hopefully the next one will be faster. From recording to release was about 15 months. We polished the tunes up with small gigs for about five months before recording and I started writing some of the tunes about six months before that. So all in all a lengthy process, which I hope to shorten up the next time around.
What do you want people to take away – or gain – from it?
Nothing more than after they’ve listened to it one day they really want to listen to a track or the whole album again the next day. Or for a track to evoke a thought (hopefully a good one!) or feeling. The smell test was to keep the music unpredictable enough that it’d bypass people’s preconceived musical biases while keeping it accessible enough that it wouldn’t be immediately rejected as “weird. “
You are in another band, Anouman. Talk about how you all came together for it, and why do you love gypsy jazz?
Anouman came together mostly because we played so many gigs together that it seemed high time to form a band and play some original material. Before Anouman began I had no particular affinity for gypsy jazz as a genre mostly due to my lack of exposure. I’m glad I was exposed though, because Django, as much as a figure as Charlie Parker, or Bach, or Prince, was right there on the forefront of his own musical domain and his music carries all the humanity that every innovator’s does. Which is practically the whole point of doing this thing!
On a more practical level, it’s a great band format for composition as you can take a lot of chances and compositional leaps, but the limits of the format tend to assist with accessibility and compositional viability.
Another new project is breaking too – what is “La Storia” all about?
Similar to “HyperGiant Hi-Fi”, these are all original compositions that we have been playing live at concerts, festivals and clubs for at least a year, so they definitely have more of a lived-in feel. Different from Orkestra, all band members contributed compositions to the album. We hope to record another album very soon as we are sitting on a backlog of material we’d like to record.
What is the inspiration behind this?
How did you amass so much material? Are you tired?
On top of these projects I also play gigs throughout the week in a variety of contexts, have a full studio of private students, hand-finish new and vintage saxophone mouthpieces through SK Mouthpieces, and have a four-year-old kid… so yes, the days get long! The driving force behind all these original projects is to keep creating music that is better than the music I created before it and to keep pushing myself, which can get difficult when practice and composition time is at a premium, but them’s the breaks. Relevant (not gratuitous) Godfather 2 reference, Hyman Roth: “This is the life we’ve chosen.”
Where are you based and what is the music scene like there?
I’m currently based in Queens in New York City. The music scene in NYC really is carved up to some extent by borough, and I feel very lucky to be in one of the most musically interesting pockets in the city. Queens is one of the most diverse places on earth and the music is no exception; there’s always something to check out, learn, practice, and try to incorporate. One can never learn all of it so the capacity to grow and learn is really only limited by your own dedication and focus.
All-time favorite small venue/club?
So many, but in the city I have played some incredibly memorable gigs at Zinc Bar and Cornelia St. Cafe, seen fantastic shows at 55 Bar and the Jazz Standard. Venues seem to come and go though, while musicians just find another home, so I rarely feel as connected to a place rather than a scene.
That said certain venues do provide a valuable outlet for some incredible musicians: 55 Bar comes to mind. Anouman actually had a semi-home venue at Cornelia St. Cafe, which gave us a regular concert style venue to play, but that has closed due to some landlord issues so we will have to find another place. My favorite current session spot is in Queens called the LetLove Inn.
Festival you would like most to perform at?
Montreux Jazz Festival, main stage. Can we make it happen?!
Best advice to jazz artists just starting out?
I started saxophone extremely late so I felt like I was always playing catch-up, which in turn led to many hours of practicing technical studies and transcribing but not as many hours composing or trying to work out my own thing (these days my time split is almost exactly the opposite). Creating new music is easily as important to your development as practicing the horn and I wish I had known that to the extent I do now when I started out. Practicing piano also, preferably a real one which seems to make a substantial difference rather than just one with weighted keys, is also a biggie. It makes playing the saxophone physically easier and lets you improvise with greater freedom as it lets you feel chords and notes in context on a more physical level than just hearing them on your single-note instrument.
Other than that, maybe be cool and keep working on your own things even with all the other gigs/work things you have going on in your life.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
The most eloquent manual to the creative process I’ve ever read is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. The creative process spans mediums and that process has no more articulate champion than Ray Bradbury. Highly recommended!
For more information, visit www.petersparacino.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Peter Sparacino.
© Debbie Burke 2019