Guitarist/composer Michael Chorney is one of the most prolific musical talents in the Green Mountains. From his work with his own progressive jazz outfits, such as viperHouse, to recent forays into cabaret-style expressionism, Chorney has always followed his creative instincts. In the process, he's kickstarted the careers of several players, including Vorcza organist Ray Paczkowski and in-demand drummer P.J. Davidian. Chorney's latest quintet, Magic City, finds him continuing to experiment with mood, texture and tonality. Featuring drums, viola, upright bass and trombone, Chorney's "prepared guitar" and the exquisite voice of Miriam Bernardo, the band's sound is an ethereal hybrid of jazz and chamber music, combining otherworldly melodies with earthy harmonies and hypnotic rhythms.
Magic City's debut CD, 2004's The June Book, is a sultry tribute to composer and big band leader Sun Ra and his longtime vocalist June Tyson. Known for creating avant-jazz with spiritually conscious, sci-fi-tinged lyrics, Ra, who played the Discover Jazz Festival in 1988, departed the terrestrial realm in 1993. Magic City -- who play their first Burlington gig at Nectar's this week -- carry on his cosmically attuned tradition.
With shoulder-length brown hair, groovy, wire-rimmed glasses and an easy-going demeanor, 44-year-old Chorney comes across like your favorite hipster uncle, the one who'll let you sip his beer while teaching you a thing or two about jazz. And he has a lot to teach -- but don't call him a bandleader. "I like to think of myself as more of a 'collaboration facilitator,'" he says, smiling.
Chorney's most recent recruitment effort features some of the finest young players in the state. In addition to Bernardo, 25, Magic City includes 27-year-old bassist Robinson Morse, who has performed with Vorcza and Voice, and trombonist Andrew Maroz, 22, whose resume includes gigs with Dave Grippo and the Trey Anastasio Band. Violist Caleb Elder, 24, is a member of bluegrass acts The Cleary Brothers and The Mad Mountain Scramblers, while 20-year-old Geza Carr works the kit with afro-fusion group Downboi, and regularly gigs with Morse at Montpelier's Langdon Street Cafe. Chorney seems delighted to be playing with each of them. "These are really in-demand folks, and they're all fantastic," he enthuses.
Originally from Buffalo, New York, Chorney headed to Burlington at age 18. "I pretty much threw a dart at the map," he says of the move. Although most Vermonters know him for his horn playing, he actually started out on guitar, performing in local combos such as the short-lived, worldbeat group Sundog in the mid-'80s. His brass fascination began at 25, when someone gave him a saxophone. Teaching himself music theory and notation, Chorney practiced his horn while "living in the woods by myself -- which is a great place to learn to play sax."
Chorney really hit his stride in the '90s with viperHouse. The nine-piece band's wide-lens approach to acid-jazz won them acclaim throughout New England and was documented on two studio albums, Shed and Lap Hen. When the group disbanded in 2000 -- "right around the time George W. was elected," Chorney says -- he put down the horn and began experimenting with the six-string once again.
A key component of Magic City's sound is Chorney's unconventional approach to the instrument. He achieves different tones by placing foam strips or insulated telephone wire beneath the strings at various positions around the soundhole. "I brought my guitar to a session one day, and lying on the ground was a piece of foam rubber," he says. "I just put it on the strings, and I instantly said aha!" Chorney demonstrates the effect; his rhythmic, cyclical picking can evoke sounds ranging from a harp to a gamelan. "Over the last year, I've been really exploring it," he goes on. "I have a whole formula for each treatment. But the great thing about it is that it's never quite the same -- the overtones are different every time. I'm really excited about it, because in a way, I've invented my own instrument. It's liberating to me because there's no standard."
Another thing that sets Magic City apart is their approach to performance. Rather than soloing over a set of changes, as is typical of small jazz combos, band members voice the material as a single instrument. Even Bernardo's gorgeous, low-toned pipes are simply another component of the group's voluptuous sound. This is exactly how Chorney wants it. "I really enjoy jazz, and I love to hear people display their technical abilities -- it's like watching a gymnastic meet or something like that," Chorney says. "It's thrilling. But music also encompasses art. To have your technical ability not only express your hours and hours of practice, but also your artistic mind, is another form of discipline."
Magic City grew out of Chorney's repeat collaborations with Bernardo, which found them tackling some pretty bold material. "Right before Magic City, Miriam and I had a group called The Seven Deadly Sins, which performed the music of Kurt Weill," he says. Noted for his subversive use of classical and jazz music as a weapon of social criticism, the German composer -- who was most active in the late '20s -- created work that deliberately challenged audiences.
"A lot of the reasons for why we chose that material came from the state of the world," Chorney explains. "Weill's work dealt directly with social and political issues. We did a couple of successful concerts, but the songs are pretty brutal. One of the pieces we performed is called 'What Keeps Mankind Alive,' and the punchline, so to speak, is that man is kept alive by bestial acts. And meanwhile the war is raging, and what's going on politically is insane. So I started thinking, what if we dealt with these issues by going in the complete opposite direction? What if we presented music from another planet, which negates what seems to be the nature of mankind, and insists upon an alternate, perhaps more beautiful reality?"
The music of Sun Ra fit the bill perfectly. Originally, Chorney and Bernardo imagined a more literal tribute, with two drummers and a full horn section. An intimate run-through of a few Ra compositions made them re-think their initial idea. "One night, when we were playing with Seven Deadly Sins, we opened with some Sun Ra tunes, just the two of us," Chorney says. "The feeling for me was of absolute freedom. It was so special and spellbinding, that that's where we decided to go with it."
Chorney also felt they were on to something, and was eager to continue. "I was really curious to see how this kind of material would affect an audience -- you know, singing about living in the space age. But from the first couple of shows, it was so obvious. The experience was truly magical."
You might think that's how the group earned their handle, but the moniker actually comes from the nickname for Birmingham, Alabama -- Sun Ra's place of birth and final resting ground. "He grew up there, and even wrote a couple of pieces with the title -- 'East Side of Magic City,' and so forth," Chorney explains.
Over the course of his career, the far-out composer earned a reputation for being deliberately obscure. In spite of Sun Ra's eccentricities, Chorney recalls being instantly drawn to his work. "The first time I heard Sun Ra was in 1986 at Hunt's in Burlington," he says. "From the first note, I realized I was hearing the concert of my life. The music was a combination of absolute delight, driving intensity and sheer beauty. They incorporated humor, but it never diminished the regal import of the whole endeavor. I hesitate to use the word spiritual, because it has certain connotations. But there's something truly heartening there." Bernardo feels similarly. "They're celestial lullabies -- the music gives hope," she says. "I truly love it, it just opens me up. In doing this music, I can let go of perfection and just go for the embodiment. I also like to watch how it hits certain people."
When he arranges Sun Ra's music for the band, Chorney takes quite a few liberties. But he aims to preserve the overall character of the work. "The melodies are there, the basic chords are there," Chorney says, comparing his approach to arranging to that of Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans. "I think it's all fair game as long as the spirit of the piece is completely intact and adhered to throughout."
Re-imagining Sun Ra's big band compositions for a smaller, chamber-style group might seem like a pretty radical move, but Chorney says it was perfectly natural. "Doing away with concerning ourselves with that was great," he explains. "Big band was not what we were doing, you can't do that with a four or five piece anyway, so we were like, fine -- we'll do it with what we have." So far, Sun Ra fans are responding favorably. "We had someone come up to us last year at a festival who said, 'God, who would think a bunch of white folks from Vermont would be carrying on Sun Ra's legacy, but you guys really seem to be doing it,'" Chorney recalls.
Although Sun Ra's work provides plenty of "space" to explore, Chorney is already working on expanding the group's repertoire. "I'm just starting to compose original pieces for the band," he says. "They're in the hopper, but I'm not rushing them." This new material will most likely feature lyrical contributions from several of Chorney's literary pals. "I have several friends that are pretty renowned poets -- Carla Van Vleet, Anna Blackmer, Bud Lawrence, Chico Martin -- who I've talked to about writing a song," he says. "They get to write the lyrics, indicate the tempo and tell me if it's major or minor, and I'll put music to it. I already have one of them from Carla, and it's fantastic." Given Magic City's talent, the recorded result promises to be spellbinding.