The Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's warehouse district, usually does great business on a Friday night. Families eat robust meals downstairs while one flight up, in the sports pub, post-prep school hippies dance to local jam bands. The Disco Biscuits are on the jukebox and a photograph of Jerry Garcia sits behind glass in the actual brewery. By all means, this place is friendly to heads. But tonight it's empty.
At the bar sit three stars of the jamband kingdom. (But don’t call them that if you want to stay on their good side). Ray Paczkowski, the bearded keyboardist for Trey Anastasio, is hunched over a barstool casually picking at his meal. In between bites, he makes quiet conversation with Gabe Jarrett, once drummer for the Jazz Mandolin Project and Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe. Rob Morse, Paczkowski’s bandmate in the late Viperhouse, also sits with them. The three of them currently play together in Vorcza, and tonight they drove eight hours to play to an empty room.
Huddled together, at the end of a long horseshoe bar, they look like old college buddies mourning the loss of a friend. Their faces stare blankly into their pint glasses. Yet, despite the way it looks, they’re not melancholic just relaxed. Low-key. What do you expect? They’re from Vermont.
A week ago I called Paczkowski on his cell phone. I wanted to do a story on him and arranged to set up an interview. Naturally, I wanted to talk a fair amount about his involvement with Trey Anastasio, but I concealed that by saying "Vorcza" half a dozen times in one voice mail. Vorcza this and Vorcza that. "Vorcza, Mr. Paczkowski, Vorcza!"
The truth is, I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Vorcza, but I could play "Trivial Pursuit The Trey Anastasio Edition" and win every time. I’ve interviewed drummer Russ Lawton annually since 1999 and last fall even enjoyed my own private soundcheck. This was familiar territory to me. Even if it wasn’t, I could go online to Phantasy Tour and within minutes learn the minutia. Trey Anastasio’s band, which technically still doesn’t have a name (officially it’s just "Trey Anastasio" making it fucking difficult to write things like the following) started out as a trio. In four years, the band expanded from three to ten. Ray Paczkowski, who joined in 2001, was somewhat of a late addition. Regardless, he made it in time to headline summer amphitheaters and even play the anchor set at last summer’s Bonnaroo in front of nearly 100,000 people. Tonight, he’ll be playing for an audience of 20. Okay 30 tops. And many of them are accidentals. Stranglers. Randoms hoping to get in a game of pool or throw a round of darts.
When Vorcza take the stage, most don’t even take notice. They continue their conversations, pub games, and chance activity. As soon as the music starts, however, it is hard to ignore. Many people don’t like it. It’s discordant and dissonant. It’s decidedly un-groovy. You can’t dance to it and god knows you can’t sing along. It’s Sun Ra meets Medeski Martin and Wood and it’s freaky. I mean all of this in a good way, of course, but not everybody takes it that way. Some tables leave. Others laugh and buy another round. In between songs, so few people clap that you can actually distinguish each individual clap. Different people do it differently, you know.
Had the venue advertised "Vorcza featuring members of Trey Anastasio, Jazz Mandolin Project, and Viperhouse" tonight could’ve been a success. Even with Vida Blue playing two hours away in Philadelphia, Vorcza would’ve had a respectable head count had the marquee only made Paczkowski’s extracurricular activity clear. As it stands, the advance poster the band provided was just a simple black and white photo, with no text other than the band name. This is half by design, and half by default. Shrugging off their collective star power, the three of them avoid bright lights in favor of big sounds. It sounds valiant, but truthfully it’s not even about principles. At first, I’m convinced, this is for show. "It’s about the moooosic, dude." But then I find out the unthinkable it really is. You see the thing is they don’t talk about it even among themselves. Really. When I ask all three of them why they don’t hype the machine, Morse starts going for an extended "It’s all about the music!" lecture when Jarrett cuts him off: "But also we’re really bad businessmen!"
Paczkowski laughs and adds, "I was going to say publicity-wise we’re inept!"
Morse doesn’t laugh. "We could probably be shrewder when it comes to marketing ourselves," he admits, "but I think actually in a good way, we’re very much about the music." Yes, Morse, we know. Honestly!
And although he seems lighthearted about it, Paczkowski is right there with him. Touring with Trey Anastasio is fun and games, shits and giggles, but this ("Vorcza, Mr. Paczkowski, Vorcza!") is the real deal. And while he may play dumb, publicity-wise, the truth is, he knows what he’s doing. If I deceived him by making it seem like I wasn’t going to ask many Trey questions, he deceived me into thinking I was going to get the interview. As it turns out, he’s not interested in having me interview him. He’s interested in having me interview Vorcza the band.
That’s okay. And besides, he’s got the right idea. Let Trey talk about Trey, and Ray talk about Ray. He and his two bandmates in Vorcza walk with me to the roof of the sports pub. I change my line of questioning and take a crash course in Vorcza, this jazz-combo from Burlington that I’ve been hearing about lately. Even after I make it clear that I’ll play fair, the three stay huddled close together and I start to imagine that the three of them are actually one three-headed freak boy. I wish I could draw a parallel here to their music, saying that the three are single minded in their improvisation and form one body musically, and in a way that’s true but I’m not so sure if I’m willing to make that leap yet. That’s an awfully big leap, you know. And if it is meant to extol their skills on their respective instruments, it might be a disservice to the music that they’re making. When they play, each musician makes his own mark. Keyboards, bass, and drums. Some of it is hard to listen too, but almost all of it is rewarding. And, although I know I’ll be seeing Paczkowski play with Trey Anastasio in large concert halls this spring, watching him stand uncomfortably close to Jarrett and Morse, it dawns on me Vorcza really is a BAND.
How did the three of you meet up?
Paczkowski: Rob and I were in Viperhouse, and while we were in that band we started this sort of side-project to do local stuff it was more of a straight-up jazz thing. That’s how it began.
This was in Burlington?
Paczkowski : Yes. And with the percussionist of Viperhouse, PJ Davidian. He split for Chicago and we needed a drummer because we wanted to keep working at it. And we ran into Gabe on the street…When Viperhouse ended, we kind of turned our attention to this more and more, made a CD, and now we’re pursing it.
When did Viperhouse officially end? And for that matter, why?
Paczkowski : (laughs nervously). It was pretty much personal stuff between members of the band. It just couldn’t go on.
Morse: Four people left about a year before the band was totally through. And so we went down to a six piece that was much more instrumental, although not entirely, and…
Jarrett: I liked the band like that…
Morse: Yeah, that was cool.
When did Vorcza form as Vorcza?
Paczkowski: When was that?
Morse: I guess it was like four years ago. When we first started playing gigs…it was pretty infrequent. We’d play every couple months in Burlington.
Jarrett: As an entity it was, what, like two years ago that Viperhouse totally dissolved?
Jarrett: So that’s basically when this became more of a priority.
What were you doing right before Vorcza, Gabe? Originally, you were in Jazz Mandolin Project, and I remember hearing that Jamie Masefield wanted "new personnel."
Jarrett: My impression is that in the initial phase of that band the concept was that it was a band. That’s the part that I was there for. For a lot of reasons, that wasn’t working for Jamie. He decided to make it more of a "Jamie Masefield and whoever he hires," which I think is appropriate for that group.
When did this happen?
Jarrett: That was like ’96. No, that was late ’97. Maybe a little bit into ’98 but that was pretty much the end of it.
So then what did you do?
Jarrett: I was living in the country at that point, so I moved to Burlington. I considered moving to a larger city, but figured I’d try Burlington first for a little while. I actually lived with Stacey [Starkweather, who also left the Jazz Mandolin Project]. We shared a place. And I just tried to get involved with whatever was happening locally, because I hadn’t ever really done that…I wanted to see what was going on in Vermont, and I found some things. I found some local stuff that I really liked, and I played with this guy James Harvey. I played a lot of jazz. That’s what I wanted to be doing. And I started teaching too. I teach drums.
Ray obviously continues to play with Trey. Are all of you in other projects as well?
Morse: Sure. There’s a lot of music going on, a lot of people around Burlington. I play with a couple other groups somewhat regularly. One of them, Gabe is in. It’s called Tala. It’s original music that’s based on original compositions. Tala’s also a Viperhouse one a lot of the people were involved with and kind of came out of Viperhouse. But it’s much more improvisation and composition oriented. Not so much in the jam idiom. A lot of horns. It’s basically just horns, bass, and drums. No guitars or keyboards or anything.
A lot of people in the jamband world know all the personnel in Vorcza already. Viperhouse was usually considered a jamband.
Morse: Yeah we fit into that category. Or, that was the crowd we were playing for largely.
The Jazz Mandolin Project same thing.
And then obviously Trey Anastasio.
Paczkowski : The Uber-Jamband!
Is Vorcza a jamband?
Morse: We don’t think that way. We’re not concentrating on trying to appeal to a certain group of people. We’re playing our music and what we’re finding is that it appeals to a lot of different people, but as far as the club circuit, as a band that can appeal to the college-age jam crowd, you’re going to do a lot better more consistently than a band that just appeals to people that are totally into jazz. To me, the jam world encompasses a lot. There’s a lot of room for various influences and stylistic variety.
Jarrett: The parts of the jam audience that are interested in improvisation and in taking some chances with the music, we’re going to appeal to them. That’s what I figure. And the parts of the jamband world that are just interested in a real groove all the time and a real constant-ness we’re not quite like that. We might actually stop the groove for moments if there is one to begin with.
That reminds me of Medeski, Martin, and Wood. They almost got pigeonholed as a jazz-groove band, and then they rebelled against it.
Morse: They’ve always just done what they wanted. They just play their music. And sometimes it’s music that people can dance to, and then other times it’s not at all, it’s much more ambient or textural.
Jarrett: What’s potentially cool about the jamband thing is that it includes people who are interested in both those things.
Morse: It can bring people to music that they never would’ve heard. I’ve talked to so many people who started out being really into the Grateful Dead and Phish, and these rock bands that are jamming and improvising, and through that they started more and more to gravitate towards true improvisational music, meaning music that is not based on power chords and lyrics and standard forms in that way.
Some jambands consider improvisation to be one person jamming over a groove.
Morse: Yeah. Ripping guitar solos. So to me, the thing that’s really great is that it brings people to places that they never knew existed. There are people I know that probably would’ve never figured out they like Sun Ra or John Coltrane if they hadn’t gone from Phish to Medeski, Martin and Wood, then to John Zorn or, you know what I’m saying; it’s a bridge to all kinds of stuff. Which is great.
Ray what happened when you were plucked by Trey? Vorcza was already a band.
Paczkowski: When Viperhouse was happening, we had done a show in Winston-Salem and Trey sat in with us. And we talked after that, and he talked about Russ [Lawton] and Tony [Markellis], who I didn’t know at the time. He said, "I know these guys and some day I want to do a band with them." And then I didn’t talk to him for years. And then this trio, Vorcza, was playing up at the Higher Ground in Burlington and he showed up…
Jarrett: With Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland!
Paczkowski: ...and he said, "You have to decide tomorrow if you want to go out on the road for three weeks and do all these gigs." And I said, "Yeah." And it financed our CD. It was great fun. It was an exciting thing.
Ray, has the big band music that you’re playing with Trey influenced your playing in Vorcza at all?
Paczkowski: Stylistically? I don’t know. As far as how to play the instrument that I’m playing? Just by playing it more, and in a certain setting, it’s going to affect it. If I was playing in jazz clubs in a quiet way I would probably end up playing my rig in a totally different way and of course that would rub off.
Vorcza could’ve gotten a lot of hype if you built it up as "Featuring members of Trey Ansastasio’s band, the Jazz Mandolin Project, and Viperhouse." But it seems like you try purposely not to do that.
Jarrett: I did gigs with the Jazz Mandolin Project earlier on, in Colorado. Because our promo material said "Phish" so much it said "friends with Phish," "played with Phish" the actual poster for the gig, in large print, said "Friends of Phish!" Like as if that was the name of the band! And then it said "Jazz Mandolin Project" way down there somewhere; but the name of the band for the night was "Friends of Phish"
Paczkowski: (joking) "F.O.P."
Jarrett: Everybody was a little dismayed. But when you try to market yourself that way, it’s a little dangerous because whoever you are trying to be, your identity might get overlooked by the fact that you’re "friends of Phish."
Morse: The "friends of Phish" isn’t going to mean much to the people not in the rock n’ roll, jamband world. To put yourself in a little box, that’s where you’re at. You’re in this little self-constructed little marketing niche that is not universal.
What’s the process in this band for writing originals?
Morse: Usually one of us will write the basic tune. Sometimes it’s pretty much completely composed, and then we put it in front of the band and we’ll add each of our own take on what we’re listening to. And then there are some tunes that come out of just playing together.
Jarrett: There’s some collaboration. Recently we had a rehearsal where we addressed a few tunes that had areas that we didn’t think were working quite right, so certainly there’s a lot of collaboration in fixing those kinds of problems or fixing that kind of stuff when it comes up. But the idea for a tune pretty much comes from Rob, or Ray, or every once in a great while, me.
When you recorded in the Barn, were all those tunes already put together, or was there a lot of writing in the actual studio?
Paczkowski: There’s a lot of improvisation. Some of those tunes, like particularly the ones with the piano, we don’t usually play out. And for that reason it was kind of like we learned them and then did them for the recording with the thought that we would play them live. And then we ended up not playing them live. It seemed like being in the studio, for some of the tunes, it was right to keep them [there].
What’s the future direction of the band? Do you want to go on a national tour? Do you see yourself being a studio-heavy band? You’re such a young band in terms of those things that I’m curious to see where you want to go with it.
Paczkowski: I think that as far as recording, the next thing that we’re thinking of doing is some live recording. And we sort of started to take a couple of steps towards that basically thinking about it. (laughs). We’re just starting really to get out in a regional way, and we’re hoping this summer to do that quite a bit more.
For more information visit Vorcza online at www.vorcza.com.