Spafford and the Art of Improvisation

Spafford | Courtesy Jay Stevens

After completing a whirlwind 2017 tour opening for Umphrey’s McGee and headlining summer music festivals throughout the nation, Spafford retreated home to Phoenix to regroup.

NOTE: The show has been postponed until Monday, March 5, due to weather conditions. Visit devildogshows.com for details.

“For so long, all we knew was work,” says bassist Jordan Fairless. “One day we called it in and didn’t want to rehearse anymore. We all went to Wet ‘n’ Wild water park instead. We just wanted to eat chili-cheese dogs and go on waterslides. On tour, we call it ‘funishment.’ It’s like, ‘You are required to go have fun right now.’ We’re all just big kids at heart.”

“Someone begins playing and we build on top of that. When you start listening to everyone you can really change the music.”
–Jordan Fairless

The following day they met back up at their recording studio hidden in an industrial section of Phoenix. Nicknamed “The Pound,” the spot is known for its curious abundance of stray cats. Still chilled out from the waterpark, the band decided to jam rather than rehearse new songs.

“There wasn’t a lot of planning that went into it,” says Fairless.

The 60-minute, spur-of-the-moment, group improvisation Spafford created that day weaved through more than 20 different movements and more than a dozen key changes and time signatures. The result was so fascinating that the band decided to release it as a single LP entitled, “Abaculus: An Improvisational Experience.”

Abaculus is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a tile used in mosaic.”

“It’s a bunch of pieces together coming together to form a bigger piece of art,” explains Fairless. “It’s cool because you have to be patient.”

Last spring, Spafford replaced its longtime drummer with newcomer Cameron Laforest. He previously played with Phoenix psychedelic/funk band Rabbithole Handbook and met Spafford at the local open improvisation night at Cactus Jack’s Bar & Grill.

“I think anytime you put a new musician in it brings something different, but our musical evolution goes beyond the four people we see now,” says Fairless. “Our job is to make sure the music always keeps going, improving and evolving.”

The Spafford approach to jamming is simple: listen to each other: “We start with nose goes,” says Fairless. “Someone begins playing and we build on top of that. When you start listening to everyone you can really change the music. This leads to fluid key changes and the ability to move on a dime.”

Spafford members are well-trained in the raw elements of musical theory. “There are some techniques we use in order to create defined ways of transitioning and changing keys intentionally,” Fairless says. “I’ll have an idea of where something can go and then use the rules we’ve created to get there. But if I divulge our trade secrets, I’ve gone too far.”

Fairless describes improvisation as “spontaneously created music.” What sets Spafford’s work apart is rather than a single player extemporizing over a set chord structure, all four band members move instinctively through full themes and movements of music created on the fly by group mind.

“We’re basically writing songs and venturing forth in the moment,” says Fairless. “I recently said to Cameron, ‘One day you will be able to read my mind and you won’t have to think about it.’ We can all four have our eyes closed and that’s the greatest moment. I’ve been out of my body for up to three minutes: unconscious and tapped in. I was not there. I was completely taken over by music. I look at pictures of us and my eyes are rolling back in my head. I was warped into another dimension.”

Spafford’s improvisation comes from a mix of talent, practice and cooperation, but even they have to admit that some of their greatest jams may be inspired by a power higher than themselves.

“We’re channeling it,” says Fairless. “You can feel it in the room. The crowd gets more responsive and goes to a different space. Everyone on stage is looking up and you can see that we are all connected into the great spirit. We are tapping into sacred things.”

“Music has always been my higher power and what makes my life make sense,” continues the Alabama-born musician who cut his chops in his parents’ Nashville Baptist church choir. “That’s the connection I look for in people out there. Sometimes it’s the one person not dancing, completely taken away by the moment. His eyes are closed, his hands are on his heart. We’ve all been there and that’s what keeps us coming back.”

March 2 | 9 p.m.
Crystal Bay Casino | Crystal Bay, Nev.

For more information or for tickets, visit spafford.net or crystalbaycasino.com