The Japhy Ryder of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums is a peripatetic Zen Buddhist poet, based upon the real-life Gary Snyder, who, as Kerouac describes him, answers questions, “right off the bat from the top or bottom of his mind.” The Japhy Ryder of Burlington, Vt., are a jazz-funk band with a “space” trumpet player and a mean cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gz and Hustlas” buried in their musical quiver. Like their namesake, the band has a tendency for its own kind of spontaneity and heady improvisation, a quality developed and cultivated over its 10-year run. The band celebrates its decennial anniversary on Saturday, December 7, at ArtsRiot in Burlington.
Japhy Ryder (the band) began at Saint Michael’s College in 2003 as a senior thesis project for founding members Pat Ormiston, who plays bass, and guitarist Jeremy Kizina. Under the auspices of professor Nat Lew, the two graduating seniors enlisted fellow SMC Jazz Ensemble peers Will Andrews on trumpet and Jason Thime on drums to write and record music for their final project, in lieu of the “100-page books” Ormiston recalls his classmates writing.
Lew, who comes from a strict classical-music background, admits it was “quite a stretch to even meet them halfway,” given their funky genus. He remembers the group sustaining enthusiasm for the project throughout, never having to wrangle in their collective focus. The quartet recorded a four-song EP, The Soft Glow Sessions, to hand in alongside their compositions and capped off the project with a formal recital at the college’s McCarthy Arts Center in December 2003.
Breaking through the formal structures binding their written compositions, the band soon developed a more improvisational sound anchored by the budding synchronicity between Ormiston and Thime. Andrews claims his drummer and bassist found their signature lockstep only after five years of intensive playing and touring, though this reporter recalls, hazily, a crammed show at a SMC townhouse in 2004 where the congruent rhythm section held heavy and steady for minutes on end, allowing Andrews and Kizina to race atonally along a series of cathartic peaks.
Outgrowing the campus bubble, JR spilled into Burlington clubs with their college crowd in tow. They played weekly at the Waiting Room — now Pizzeria Verità — and cultivated a following at Rí Rá and Nectar’s before heading out to venues in Rochester, New York, Cleveland, Ohio, New York City and beyond. They earned enough cash on the road to buy a van but never made enough to justify quitting their jobs back in town.
Though under the constant strain of traveling and playing, JR’s efforts were rewarded in 2008 with a distribution contract from Ropeadope Records, home of like-minded jazzbos Medeski, Martin and Wood, the Benevento/Russo Duo and Antibalas.
The Philadelphia-based label had lined up a tour for the band, though the proverbial fly dove into the ointment when Kizina, who had developed tendonitis from extensive playing and was stressed from a family issue, realized, after a show in Harrisburg, Penn., “I kind of don’t want to be here.”
The band wasn’t blindsided. Aside from Kizina’s injury preventing the consistent guitar playing he sought, his and the rest of the band’s musical directions were diverging as well. While they edged toward a more low-key, spaced-out groove, referred to once in this paper as “porn prog,” Kizina was still writing rock. He called Ormiston a few days later with his decision.
“They dealt with it better than I did,” Kizina remembers, “But I think it was hard for them to decide whether to go on or not.”
By that point, Andrews had started another venture, WEST (Will’s Electric Space Trumpet), an endeavor that leaned toward the jazz fusion of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and beyond. Ormiston was just beginning a group dubbed Invisible Homes. As JR teetered, Higher Ground asked them to open for the New Deal, and the decision to follow through was made. Billed as WEST, they played that March 2009 show with Zack duPont, a guitarist they had met earlier in their career when he booked the band to play his theme house at Sarah Lawrence College.
DuPont had moved to town and started the short-lived Hollywood Farm before joining Andrews in WEST. Inspired by hip-hop, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Eric Krasno, duPont became the obvious choice to replace Kizina.
The reimagined lineup embarked on writing new material and made good on most of the scheduled Ropeadope dates. Rather than attempt to mimic Kizina’s intricate guitar lines, duPont, who also plays with his brother, Sam, in local soul outfit the duPont Brothers, brought in his own style. His succinct playing fit well within JR’s new direction. He worked to cut down on solos and to build “sonic landscapes” in their place.
“I get to have a more textural focus in Japhy,” duPont says.
Thime says the band became more about its members “having an equal role” with the guitar playing more subdued. Andrews adds that he isn’t “shredding trumpet” as much anymore and instead reaches for diversification. Thime roped in percussionist Matt Deluca, another SMC alum, to thicken and expand the drums. The new JR sound can be heard on their most recent release, In Session, a far cry from their more aggressive early years — which the band prefers to let go.
“We can do now what we were trying to do then,” Ormiston says. He’s referring to their ambitious attempts at Afrobeat and club that they may not have had the chops to play early on. Deluca says part of the change in the band’s sound is a result of an evolving audience. He recognizes that DJ and production culture has advanced so quickly in the last 10 years that the crowd of Japhy Ryder’s early years had a far different relationship with music and technology than do current crowds.
“The challenge,” Deluca asks, “is how do you replicate that live?”
Beyond the anniversary show, the band has no plans to tour, though the members concede they’re due for an album of new material next year. They remain friends with Kizina, whose wrists aren’t as stressed these days. He has new material in the works with Thime.
At one point in The Dharma Bums, Japhy Ryder teaches the bodhisattva protagonist Ray Smith, “You can’t fall off a mountain.” There’s an easy parallel to the Burlington band in that notion. Japhy Ryder’s relative longevity in an era of easy distraction is a testament to constant motion.
Still at St. Mike’s, Lew says he’s proud of the band’s 10-year tumble, though he takes no credit.
“I just kicked them down the stairs and gravity took over,” he says.
Japhy Ryder 10th Anniversary Party with the DuPont Brothers and Otis Grove, Saturday, December 7, at ArtsRiot in Burlington. 9 p.m. $10/12. 18+.
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Beat Goes On"