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July 7 - 14, 2000


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House cleaning

A new line-up and a new outlook
for Viper House

by Don Fluckinger

Viper House 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 amicable split."

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 sound."

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.

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