A new line-up and a new outlook
for Viper House
by Don Fluckinger
There comes a time in a young band's history when serious
touring presents a problem for some of the
members. That time came for Viper House two weeks ago when four of nine
original members resigned.
Leaving were lead vocalist Heloise Williams, trumpeter Brian Boyes, trombonist
Dan Mallach, and percussionist P.J. Davidian. Meanwhile, a new tenor sax
player, Zach Tonnissen, has joined the band. Michael Chorney, band leader and
tenor saxophone player, continues to sing lead in several songs, as does
organist Ray Paczkowski.
Boyes left the band to concentrate on music teaching, and, to a certain extent,
the others left because of the scheduling and financial rigors of taking a big
group on the road, Chorney says.
"We had a big meeting," he says. "We discussed all that and decided to make the
split all at once, because it changes the conception of the group a fair amount
now that it's a six-piece. The nine-piece was sort of an orchestra; this is
kind of a chamber group."
Viper House play the Fifth Annual Ho-Down this weekend in Wendell, a jam-band
festival that has enjoyed increased attendance in recent years. The Vermont
band aren't at all a jam band, but rather a jazz ensemble modeled after Duke
Ellington and Sun Ra's Arkestra. A tough-to-pigeonhole band, Viper House
connect with jam-band fans; the funk grooves, multicultural touches, and
improvisational elements of the group's stage show fit in perfectly with the
jam-band sound. Rather than bristling at the thought of neo-hippies dancing in
the aisles, Viper House embrace that audience.
The band formed five years ago, before the jam-band scene completely took over
as New England's alternative music of choice. "People have never known where to
put us," Chorney says. "They were calling us `acid jazz' back then, and the
little acid-jazz hipsters would come to the shows and say, `This isn't acid
jazz!' -- and I couldn't have agreed more."
Since then, Viper House have released four albums, most recently Lap
Hen, a live set recorded live in Brattleboro last year. In an unusual move,
Magic Hat Brewery stepped in with a grant to fund the album's recording and
release when the label that had approached the group backed out.
Longtime fans will notice a couple things that are different about the new
Viper House when they take the stage. First off, improvisation has moved even
more to the forefront than before. Chorney is quick to point out, however, that
the band maintain what members call a "no-noodling" rule that basically
prohibits improvisation for improvisation's sake -- solely to show off a
particular player's technique. Of course, the absence of Williams, who'd been
front-and-center since the beginning, is also quite noticeable.
"We're still doing some vocals, but we're focusing into more of the
instrumental realm, which [was] the original intent when we put the band
together. . . . The intent was [to follow] the model of the old jazz
groups that would do instrumental music and then have a featured vocalist on
some numbers," Chorney says. "Heloise is such a strong personality and
performer and singer that after a while it wasn't the right fit. She needed to
sing more, and I had this other vision of what we were doing. It was an
In order to showcase Williams's vocals, he said, Viper House moved into more
traditional song arrangements. Now that she's gone, the band are left to
reinvent themselves -- and the members plan to return to the studio in July to
record a fifth CD with the new line-up. No doubt upcoming recordings will
feature some interesting jazz covers -- Lap Hen features a variety of
originals and renditions of obscure jazz tunes, including the almost-obscure
Ellington composition "Blue Pepper" as well as Sun Ra's "I'll Wait For You."
Chorney grew up in Buffalo, New York, listening to rock radio. When he heard
Sun Ra's Arkestra, he was inspired to take up jazz, and he formed Viper House
around the master's experimental jazz but with danceable grooves at the base
instead of far-out tonal experiments. With his band reinvented and getting back
to their original concept, Chorney is excited about the future.
"I always saw this as an opportunity to reconcile all the musical things in my
life that I've liked, and put them together," Chorney says. "The challenge is
to make it not be just a hodgepodge, [but rather] to make it a cohesive
Viper House play the Fifth Annual Ho-Down Music Festival, July 7, 8, and 9
with Schleigho, the Derek Trucks Band, Jazz Mandolin Project, Lake Trout,
Soulive, Yolk, Moon Boot Lover, Jiggle the Handle, Ulu, Miracle Orchestra, and
Birth. The event takes place at the Wendell State Forest, Wendell. Gates open
at noon on Friday. Full-weekend tickets cost $40. Call (800) 843-8425.