Words in italics are those of Michael Chorney, saxophonist and founding member of viperHouse.
I drove 840 miles on Nov. 10 — from Shelby, N.C., to Rochester, N.Y.’s Water Street Music Hall — to get an injection of viperosity, as served up by the crew of the interstellar-discoball-of-funk-and-jazz mothership known as viperHouse.
If cosmic grooves have never peeled you from your bar stool, making you forsake beer and lover to shake your tailfeathers like an evangelist at a July revival, you might not get this Vermont-based sextet.
Understand this: I don’t dance for anybody. Not for my girlfriend, not even for antidepressants. But friends, I spent 14 hours in a car to get down for all of 60 minutes.
We attempt to create in our concerts and in our music a situation where it’s not simply us playing and people receiving, like they’ve paid to come see a movie or something like that. … The energy between the musicians and the audience is of vital importance; it affects everything in the room. With the exchange between the audience and the musicians, it’s almost like a trust that gets forged.
I trust this band. Opening for aging hippie-rockers Max Creek, viperHouse brought the crowd from the bar to the dance floor almost immediately, and had them sweating off their patchouli with a blend of funk and jazz that transcends words.
Six months ago, however, I seriously doubt I would have driven that far to get my boogie on. viperHouse was then a nine-piece band that still delivered the funk, but also musically complicated meanderings that sometimes rendered a dance floor motionless. After the defection of stellar vocalist Heloise Williams (who sang back-up on Phish’s “Story of the Ghost”), plus their percussionist and trumpeter, I thought the vipers might lose the magic they did have.
But if you caught the band’s legendary show at Stella Blue this September, you know my fears were unfounded. Instead of losing the spark that ignited its larger incarnation, the band has managed a feat of alchemistic dimensions: They’ve found a chemistry that turns every note, every chord into auditory gold.
Because it’s a smaller group now, there’s almost a necessity to access ways of improvising in order to create the musical effects that we find pleasing. If you were getting on a train or a bus … it would go to several different places, and it’s always guaranteed to take you to the place you wanted to go, but there might be some stops along the way that aren’t necessarily ones you wanted to make. The new band is like an express: It’s about one thing and it just goes there.
With Michael Chorney coaxing funkalicious solos from the alto and baritone sax; Zach Tonnissen on tenor sax; Phil Carr keeping the groove on drums; Ray Paczkowski on Hammond organ and keys (he evokes comparisons to Jimmy Smith and Herbie Hancock); Rob Morse on bass and trombone; and Karen Quinn on violin (Yes! The violin! The most underrated of all jazz instruments, and with Quinn working it, one of the most deadly … ), viperHouse is traveling a course somewhere along the lines of Miles Davis’ fusion explorations, but with dance-fury intensity.
Instead of falling into tedious repetition and unoriginal song construction, as so many jazz/funk fusion bands do, viperHouse infuses its music with a refreshing complexity and sense of play. Serving up original numbers guaranteed to have your hips shaking, the vipers dish out the surprises, too — such as their tremendous rendition of Zappa’s “Duke of Prunes” in Rochester. Notwithstanding the occasional slow number, which seemed out of sync with the crowd’s desires, the band delivered ecstasy-laced satisfaction from start to finish.
From the very first show we did, I noticed that people in the audience weren’t sure what to expect. Halfway through the set, I could sense them having to make up their own minds about the music. It didn’t fit comfortably into any niche that was out there for them. Most folks don’t like to be challenged when they’re going out to be entertained. But we like to think of it as a good challenge, as a healthy thing, and something that’s hopefully, ultimately, a little invigorating to folks.
viperHouse comes back to Asheville on Dec. 9 to invigorate us all. I can’t find the words to explain why you should be there, with me, at Stella Blue, getting down like you never have in your life. They played a short set in Rochester, and I didn’t get enough of the stuff that I went there for, the stuff that makes my soul sing and my mind bake. Friends, I went because I wanted to experience music.
We’re doing it because we have to. We’re compelled as artists and musicians to create this music we’re doing. … It’s great, because right now the band we have — it’s very unified aesthetically. As for why someone else should come to our shows, I could only offer that, for the same reason that it’s difficult to describe what we do, our shows are compelling to people. We really are attempting to do something a little different. We’re trying to create an intelligent music, so to speak, but one that still digs deep and [makes someone] dance. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s very satisfying when it works.
They’re coming around the mountain, bringing the love. Come and give some back to them.