When trumpeter Philip Topping and guitarist Andy Waddell started jamming in the mid-2000s – soon to be joined by bassist Peter Sepsis and a keyboardist named Aubrey Scarbrough – it didn’t take long for them to realize how many heroes they shared. And when they decided to work together as a trio (after Scarbrough moved away), those mutual heroes provided the blueprint.
What is it that gives such icons, and their stylistic innovations, their staying power? “Originality” tops the list: that startling mixture of musical elements that draws us to listen again and again, and a little more deeply each time. But when it comes to the legacy of such figures, don’t ignore the subsequent artists who receive this new information and build upon it. While Charlie Parker sent the message, its import was amplified by the generations of musicians who at first copied his language, then absorbed and adapted it, and then wrote their own essays that underscored the lasting impact of the original.
So when you hear echoes of Pat Metheny’s mid-80s bands in Topping’s “First Days of Summer,” or of Weather Report in Sepsis’s “Malawi”; of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters or the Brecker Brothers on “Schizo,” or Eddie Harris in “Simple,” or the 1970s ECM Records soundprint on “Road to Hue” – in each case, it’s neither an accident nor a rip-off. In each case, those touchstones have inspired Sepsis and Topping to mine this still rich material, using tools and methods and experiences unique to them.
For one example, Sepsis wrote “Road to Hue” on a visit to Vietnam with his wife, where “One day we took a road trip to the city of Hue. While I wasn’t a combatant during the Vietnam War, I woke up one morning having an incredibly powerful dream about loss.” This composition is the result.
Adds co-leader Topping, “When we started this group, we played mainly covers” – new versions of fusion-era classics by Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard, and several tunes by Metheny, whose music had left an especially strong mark on them both. In fact, the impetus to form the band came when Topping started playing the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument), allowing him to create the timbres and attack and textures of Metheny’s synth-guitar – and to face the challenge of “integrating these sounds in an organic way” with such analog instruments as Waddell’s guitar and Mitch Forman’s piano.
The tritone – the note that precisely bisects the 12-tone scale and caused some consternation when it first came into use – was long known as “the devil’s interval.” Here, the devil’s in the details that allow Sepsis, Topping and company to redefine the music that influenced them, and then to open a gateway into a sonic world distinctive in its own right.
An asylum, of course, can refer to a place of protection, or a retreat from workaday woes – or, as Topping points out, laughing, “it could be a mental asylum; that’s all in there.” But this music is the opposite of bedlam. Sure, you’ll hear many voices in each piece – a reflection of deep roots and honest homage – but they’re singing in the same resonant key, on a program crafted with care and exquisite balance between old and new.
— Neil Tesser