Secret Architecture - Building jazz success

Fraser Campbell and his Secret Architecture band mates had no idea what lay in store when they secured their first gig at Caffe Vivaldi in New York. A venue that has nurtured live music in Greenwich Village for decades – it’s just minutes away from Bleecker Street, one of the hotbeds of the Village folk scene in the 1960s – this modest sized room plays host to all sorts of musicians, from bluegrass and world music to jazz.

On the night Secret Architecture made their debut in August last year, they were preceded by a Simon & Garfunkel tribute act. They didn’t expect many of the clientele to stick around when they began unpacking saxophones, drums and double bass and testing the piano with jazz chord progressions. But they were pleasantly surprised. They couldn’t have known that fifteen months later, they’d be holding down one of New York’s most sought after residencies. And they certainly wouldn’t have expected to become a tourist attraction, as they now are courtesy of Side Tour, an organisation that offers unique experiences to visitors to the Big Apple.

“We were just pleased to get somewhere to play our own music,” says Perth-born Campbell, a graduate of the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra saxophone section who went on to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston and gained a masters degree from William Paterson University in New Jersey.

“New York’s full of musicians who are all looking for this opportunity. I’d played in Caffe Vivaldi with another band I work with and was quite surprised when I contacted the manager and he gave us a booking for the following week. But we were all even more surprised on that first night when we got a standing ovation from one party after two songs. It turned out that they were friends of the manager, Ishrat, who’s from Pakistan, and that one of them was one of Pakistan’s leading composers. Ishrat gave us a residency for a month on the spot. Then within a couple of weeks he extended it to three months and a few weeks into that, he made it permanent. Normally in New York you have to be playing straightahead jazz or at least covers of other people’s music to get a weekly gig, so we’re really fortunate to be in this position.”

Having this Sunday residency has allowed the band to further develop the blend of strong themes, free passages and tight arrangements that was at a fairly advanced stage on their previous visit to Campbell’s homeland in February 2008. Back then, they were a trio that had grown out of Campbell working with Minnesotan Zak Mangan on the drummer’s end of term performance project at Berklee. When it became no longer possible for the original bass player, Ilan Bar-Lavy, to commute from Massachusetts once Campbell and Mangan had settled in New York, the band grew into a quartet, with Julian Smith on bass and Wade Ridenhour on piano, although it also works as a quintet when saxophonist JJ Byars’ other commitments allow.

“Everybody in New York has other gigs that they do, or other jobs, just to keep a roof over their heads because it’s an expensive city to live in,” says Campbell, who supplements his gig money from Secret Architecture by teaching saxophone at two schools in the city and was happy to work as an usher at the Lincoln Center before the band took off, getting paid to watch musicians like Charles Lloyd and Wynton and Branford Marsalis in return for showing people to their seats.

“One of the great things about the Caffe Vivaldi residency is that there’s no problem if one or more of us can’t make it because something else has come up,” he adds. “We’ve played as a trio. We’ve even played as a duo with either myself and Zak or myself and Julian, and those smaller settings actually feed into the music. Because we’re playing regularly we’re all really familiar with the arrangements, so we can cover for each other when someone’s missing and we’ve been able to work on passages where we’re not all playing, even when everyone’s there, and I think that’s made the music more interesting for the audience as well as ourselves.”

Side Tour agreed. Through its website – – the organisation offers special outings including the chance to go sailing round Manhattan island with the owner of a luxury yacht at the helm as a personal tour guide or to accompany a top chef to the market where the ingredients for a select dinner are bought to be cooked later by said chef. To these have been added the Secret Architecture experience, whereby visitors go along to a band rehearsal, watch new material being worked up and then go along to Caffe Vivaldi and hear the finished items in concert.

“We rehearse every week anyway,” says Campbell, “because we have so much new music coming into the band and we like to present something new whenever possible. This has given us a really big repertoire of songs to draw on but having people drop in on a rehearsal who don’t necessarily know how a band like this works has been really stimulating. They’re free to ask questions, like how do you know when you’ve finished your solo or how do the other players know when someone else has finished his solo or why are you playing that bit there? It’s stuff that we know instinctively, I suppose, but explaining how it works makes us think more about our music and then when they come to the gig later, there’s a real sense that they feel involved in what we’re doing – and that has to be a good thing.”

Other opportunities have come out of the Caffe Vivaldi residency, including Secret Architecture being invited to join Search & Restore, a web-based organisation that promotes New York’s creative music scene through on-line videos. Most valuable of all, though, has been the chance to develop the band through a regular Sunday night gig.

“We’ve been incredibly lucky because we’re now really tight through working together like this,” says Campbell. “A lot of bands in New York would love to have the opportunity we’ve had and it’s given us a great platform to prepare for other gigs, like the tour we’re about to do in Scotland. We’re going to do these dates as a quartet because JJ [Byars] has other commitments and can’t make the trip but we’ll arrive having built up quite a momentum – and all from a situation that we really didn’t expect to lead anywhere.”


From The Herald, November 23, 2011.


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