John Wasem and the Sparrow 4 with Mike Mirro, Joel Cummings, Ray White and Greg Rzab, The Store, Chicago, IL- 8/13
A few weeks ago, I found myself at The Store in Chicago chatting to former Umphrey’s McGee drummer, Mike Mirro (and full time medical student), about his current project. He mentioned to me that he had a new band with some up and coming players. There was to be a show in 2 weeks that would feature a few of his “friends”. That word, “friends”, intrigued me. The curiosity of seeing who Mike would have in his band, and who he would invite to join them was enough to get me in my car and back to The Store for the show. In the 2 weeks since chatting to Mike, I had heard several rumors about special guests, but had no idea what was to unfold.
Arriving at The Store at 8 pm for a 10 pm show gave me plenty of time to enjoy the fruitful jukebox and chat with the band. Mike introduced me to his guitarist, Marcus Rezak. The soft-spoken axe man is currently studying at Berklee College of Music and playing gigs in a few projects. Bassist Kyle Myers seemed to be equally grateful for this opportunity. The more I chatted with the guys, the more I got a sense of what to expect. Mike explained to me that the group is known as “John Wasem and the Sparrow 4”. Still unsure of whom the “special guests” would be, the guys headed to soundcheck.
Slightly after 10 pm, the band made their way to the stage and brought the room to attention. The opening segment was an instrumental played without John Wasem at the front. The three-piece held its own quite well. Mike Mirro offered plenty of odd time signatures, allowing plenty of breathing space for Rezak and Myers. The segment lasted for almost 25 minutes before Wassem arrived, prompting a short break. The pause was only long enough for the equipment set up, and then the music resumed. I must say that Wasem’s raspy vocals had enough grit to give the songs a dark edge, yet enough melody to keep it danceable. The group ripped through originals “Into Me” and “On the Way Down”, showcasing what would be on their album. The songs had a definite jazz influence from Mirro and Rezak, but Wasem and Kyle Myers brought that free form back to earth with a little 12 bar blues. Shortly after Mike Mirro joked about signing the next song, he invited Joel Cummins of Umphrey’s McGee to be the first “special guest”. Joel sat in on melodica for a rendition of John Scofield’s “A Go-Go”. This version was fairly loose, giving the band a chance to expand the song in directions that are non-standard. For example, Cummins gave the harmonics part that Scofield usually plays, allowing Rezak to layer on some extra melodies. This may have brought the first set to a close, but it opened the night for many possibilities.
The second set continued with Cummins still sitting in, only on a keyboard instead of melodica. Starting off a set with an improvisation can sometimes make the audience disinterested, but not in this case. The song was full of drums and keys interplay that brought a smile to nearly everyone in the house, especially Mirro and Cummins. The more that Cummins head-banged at the keys, the more I noticed the familiar chords he started pounding out. This improvisation led right into a surprisingly tight version of Umphrey’s McGee’s “Kimble”. The song, played sparingly even during UM shows, was welcomed with a heavy cheer. From this point, the band went into a few originals. I cannot tell you the titles, but I can tell you that the songs were complex arrangements with plenty of tension and release. I noted that one contained Mirro almost exclusively using high-hat and symbols to create the rhythm, while carefully placing his snare until the tension built so high that the band bounced in unison as Mirro shook the floor. The power of these tunes carried right into another guest appearance, this time by Greg Rzab on bass. Rzab has graced the stages with The Allman Brothers Band and Black Crowes, so he was well versed in the art of improvisation. The lanky, long-haired guru fired away on the bass like it was machine gun putting holes in the crowd. It wasn’t long before he led the band through “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley. During the song, Cummins offered the microphone to legendary guitarist, Ray White. Ray was the biggest surprise of the evening. I immediately thought of the Zappa recordings that I cherish and how White has inspired most of the people in this room, most without even knowing it. My thoughts were justified as Rzab and White shifted into a brief, but familiar “Whipping Post”. The crowd recognized the tune, an Allman Bros. staple, but few mentioned that both Rzab and White help put different twists on the song throughout the years. Nonetheless, the guys were thanked and applauded for their guest slots, just before the Sparrow 4 closed with “Cissy Strut” by The Meters. Guitarist Marcus Rezak stood out, placing his notes very delicately, not trying to do too much. The show ended on a slew of high notes, literally, that made my post-show-question list a bit longer.
As the band was tearing down, I had the chance to speak with John Wasem about the project. Wasem described the band as being very “eclectic and open”. He seemed very pleased with the current lineup and was ready to hit the road after the CD release party next week. I quickly jotted down some notes, turned around and spotted Ray White and Greg Rzab chatting. “What are you guys doing here?” I quipped. “We were just in town” says White. “We are working on albums right now”. Apparently, the two have a project in the works, as well as Rzab playing in a band with Steve Vai. This made their appearances even more coveted. All in all, the show was a great way to break the ice on a band that has tons of potential. The players all seem dedicated to The Sparrow 4 and the ensuing commitments. Despite starting med-school, Mirro says he would like to see the project develop. This is a lot to tackle for a guy who will have his nose in the books soon, but if anybody can do it, Mirro can.