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Courtesy of Jeff Sipe
Jeff Sipe has played with Leftover Salmon, Trey Anastasio (of Phish), Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet, Susan Tedeschi and Phil Lesh (the Grateful Dead) among other acts whose music has adventurous spirit and improvisational fire.
Courtesy of Jeff Sipe
Jeff Sipe will be playing at Martin's Downtown Bar & Grill on Saturday.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Here’s one from the personal anecdote file: I went to Nashville, Tenn., more than 20 years ago to audition for a band. I didn’t get the gig, but I got something better, something that keeps inspiring me.
Before the audition, I walked into a Tower Records store to look around. I heard something that amazed me, something that for one of the few times in my life drew me right up to the counter to ask, “What is that? And can I get a copy?”
The record was “Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit,” and there was nothing about it that I didn’t like. I still listen to it today. It combined seamlessly elements of rock, jazz, bluegrass, Afro-Cuban and psychedelic music, played by absolute instrumental monsters. I heard the band live three times, and it never sounded the same as the record. Often, it sounded better.
I have followed the careers of the players on that record — Hampton, guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist Oteil Burbridge, mandolinist Matt Mundy, percussionist Count M’Butu and drummer Jeff Sipe (Chuck Leavell, the guest keyboardist on that record, is a member of The Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones).
As a drummer, though, the player I most identified with was Sipe, aka Apt. Q-258. His drumming was so energetic, in the pocket and sympathetic, with dynamic control and a wild streak. His improvisational skills were — and are — phenomenal.
After leaving the Atlanta-based Aquarium Rescue Unit in the mid-’90s, Sipe’s career continued to blossom. He has played with Leftover Salmon, Trey Anastasio (of Phish), Jeff Coffin & the Mu’tet, Susan Tedeschi and Phil Lesh (the Grateful Dead) among other acts whose music has adventurous spirit and improvisational fire.
On Saturday, Sipe leads his own jazz-rock instrumental act, Jeff Sipe Trio, into Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grill. The players with him, Harrisonburg native Mike Seal — with whom Sipe came to Roanoke in 2011 as part of Coffin’s Mu’tet — and young bassist Taylor Lee are more than capable of summoning the musical power their bandleader has brought to stages for decades.
And Sipe, who celebrated his 54th birthday on Jan. 31, is still utterly on top of his art.
Last week, Sipe took the time for a phone interview to talk about the show at Martin’s, his experience in the Hampton band and the lessons he has learned from the musical life — lessons that could apply to anything someone chooses to do.
Hampton, who last played the Roanoke area in 2007, is revered less for his musical talent — he once told me that he is “not good enough to be humble” — than his ear for special players and his ability to bring them to an elevated performance level.
Guitar gods Derek Trucks and Herring have both spoken extensively about the profound effect that Hampton had on their playing. Folks who heard the Tedeschi Trucks Band at Jefferson Center last year will remember Burbridge’s bass solo, which included vocal riffing that provided spooky accompaniment to his improvised work. Hampton sparked that trademark development in Burbridge’s playing.
“When you work with Bruce … he asks you what your intention is, where are you coming from, playing music,” Sipe said. “And it makes you realize, there’s really a million reasons why anybody would pick up an instrument and play it. You could be coming from any mindset at all.
“That makes you question where you are coming from, and makes it really real and honest. So you could be playing from your mind. You could be playing from respect. You could be playing from the desire for money, fame, glory, sex appeal, you name it. There’s a million reasons to do anything in front of the public eye.
“But he wants to keep it real. He’s one of those special musicians who can hear one note and tell you if it’s lying, or where it’s coming from. It’s pretty amazing, actually, and it really opened our ears, all of our ears, to listening to intention and questioning ourselves.”
Sipe — who during his years at Berklee College of Music wound up in a band with another guitar god, Steve Vai — was already a great player when he joined with Hampton. But he left that act even better.
Spirit and intention
When I asked him what he felt had changed the most about his playing in that time, his answer was more about philosophy than musicianship.
“He introduced me to the difference between aspiration and ambition,” Sipe said. “I’m still working on this, but I’ve come to realize that ambition can get you where you want to go, but it runs the risk of mowing down everything that’s in your way, including relationships.
“Aspiration involves spirit, and is more allowing of a natural unfolding of events. And so you have to have enough ambition to get up out of bed and do your thing and stay dedicated to it. But you have to have enough aspiration in your life so that you can allow for opportunity, where you might be missing it if you are just dead-set on ambition.”
Other world-class players have recognized Sipe’s musical brilliance. Onstage at the Coffee Pot in 2011, Coffin (whose other job is playing saxophone for Dave Matthews Band) said “they only made one of him.” Sipe is the drummer on each of the Mu’tet’s last two records.
Herring, who continues to record and tour with Sipe, also calls the drummer one of a kind. “He understands the music on a whole other level.”
Sipe laughed when I repeated those quotes to him.
“I know where I want to go,” he said. “I know where I am. I don’t have a false pretense about that, or illusions about that. Music is bigger than any of us, so I can’t possibly claim to own it.
“But I half-jokingly say, but half-serious: I’m a drummer in this life, but next lifetime, I’m coming back as a musician. I’m in training.”
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