BY JEFF LEVEN
Let’s face it: Harvard Law School has never exactly been the world’s best-known breeding ground for budding rock stars. I mean yeah, Tom Morello, Rivers Cuomo, Gram Parsons, Paul Simon and some of the dudes in Bullet LaVolta were from Harvard, but that was the college, and with the very notable exception of Brian Blades, the Law School itself has traditionally been a bit sparse when it comes to musical genius. So, along those lines, on those rare occasions when someone in your section begs you to come see his new band, it’s only natural to have the tendency to hem and haw a little and perhaps grudgingly go, expecting something passable at best but bracing yourself for an evening of genuine caterwauling. These days, however, it just might be time to throw the “law-students-can’t-help-but-suck-at-this-stuff” theory out the window, because the dudes in my section at least have broken the mold.
In the grand tradition of HLS bands naming themselves after Simpsons references (witness the Stonecutters of Parodies past), their moniker gives some hint as to the flavor of the group’s humor and self-image. Comprised of eight Harvard guys (5 law school, 2 college, and 1 alum according to the official tally), the madcap musicological prankster circus that is Mr. Sparkle is perhaps more of a musician’s collective than a standard band, and has a uniquely legalistic psychological profile. Instead of chucking bottles at one another and screaming about how it used to be about the music, Mr. Sparkle deals with life’s difficult questions in thoroughly ordered fashion, according to 2L drummer Will Stephens: “The cover songs we play were chosen with an interesting method, by Matt’s [Heintz, bass, 2L] suggestion, which made Jeff [Weinshenker, trumpet] comment how being in a mostly law school band was a little strange: We each nominated five songs, then we narrowed the list down by consensus in a general meeting. Then, in good Lani Guinier fashion, each of us had 16 cumulative votes to spread across as many of the remaining songs as we’d like.”
Equally democratic (with a small “d” it would at times seem) are the band’s politics. While singer and guitarist 2L Brett Harvey lists Orrin Hatch alongside Johnny Cash as a musical influence, secret sources within the band suggest that “Evil About” is a jab at Bush’s foreign policy. Heintz sums up the struggle for the soul of the group as follows: “I can only add that one of the unique facets of being in a band with fellow [law] students is that at various times during our set [of songs] some of the band members feel compelled to disclaim any association with the views presented. If it weren’t for the moderating influence of Jeff [Weinshenker], I dare say that some band members would have long ago filibustered the nomination of songs, thereby leaving us with only a four minute set. No doubt, our band would have become a musical Weimar Republic, destined to succumb to a tyranny of cacophony as each band member simultaneously played their favorite songs.” Clearly, any band with the inclination to record a song entitled “The Battle of Elian Gonzalez” is mining far headier territory than the average noise merchant. After all, how often does a band member in an interview remind you to, as 2L Jon Rotter (trombone whiz) did, “mark me down for legal realism and law and economics?” Indeed, Harvey even goes so far as to squelch the suspicion that all this overt braininess might be hiding some savage wild side, noting that the bitter irony of their being rock stars is that they are all in committed relationships. Harvard (harrumph)…
So just what does Mr. Sparkle sound like? Live, Mr. Sparkle is a mix of styles, covers, musical whims and half-ironic gestures, freely alternating between pure swing, dense organic jazz and even the odd medley of Top 40 schlock-around-the-clock. Rotter opines: “We generally play diatonic stuff based on equal temperament, but we utilize microtonic inflections.” Ah…finally someone who speaks my own arcane and senselessly multisyllabic sartorially-referential musical dialect. According to Stephens, what this translates to in genre-speak is “funk, rock or folk rock, Dixieland jazz, Latin jazz, quasi-sea shanty, ambient, etc.” The description is apt enough, but doesn’t manage to fully indicate how genuinely tuneful and beautiful some of their original compositions are. Featuring lilting guitars, carefully-placed horn parts and a buoyant but never over-busy rhythm section, songs like “Slipping By” and “A Letter” showcase a musicality that far transcends the law-student-rocker-schtick. Simply put, the concept is funny, but the music is great.
So what’s ahead for Mr. Sparkle? They will be playing the April 10th Harvard Grad School “Battle of the Bands” (at The Big Easy downtown), a charity event sponsored by CGL for Little Kids Rock (a group that is opening an office in Boston and which provides musical instruction and experiences for kids whose schools can’t afford music programs.) While the provincial grinch in me might suggest that it’s high time HLS had its own internal showcase for the growing number of bands in our midst, if all’s fair in rock and grad school governance, the trumpet’s truth is that these guys have earned the right to represent — if their live show and online demos are any indication, a night of this stuff might well leave you a little star-struck. Fans can check out showtimes at http://artists.iuma.com/IUMA/Bands/Mr._Sparkle/. To round it all off, the group plans to record an album in April featuring a host of original songs.
If Mr. Sparkle’s first album is still forthcoming, that hasn’t kept Rotter from already developing a relatively deep catalogue. His other band, the Rabbinical School Dropouts, recently released Counterfeit Gelt on the Southern California label Ethnic Warrior Productions. As the name suggests, the album builds upon traditional klezmer (Jewish folk music from Eastern Europe with an emphasis on violin and clarinet), but for the most part, that’s just the starting point. A space-jazz workout in klezmer clothing, the effect is something like Sun Ra playing Tevye’s bris — a wild mix of free jazz with the occasional folk accents. For those not familiar with either genre (such as it were), the fusion is challenging but ultimately rewarding, indeed. The combination is galvanizing — the tightly orchestrated horn motifs lend an otherworldly feel to the slinky “Night In Tunisia” basslines, and the band oscillates between intense washes of sound and spare rhythmic improvisations, most notably on the title track and the opening opus “Middle Eastern BBQ.” The rhythm section shows off its chops on the unlikely klezmer funk of “Planet Quazitreen,” and the aptly named “Semitic Slam.” At times the bells and whistles verge on overkill (witness the theremin squiggles on “Cosmic Tree”), but the abstraction is perhaps part of the exercise. Following the path created by John Zorn (the pioneering avant-jazz trumpeter whose label the band has recently recorded), the Rabbinical School Dropouts are mining the periphery of jazz — the point at which it can be tangled into divergent musical forms and still maintain some lyricism in the midst of the resulting dissonance and abstraction. Indeed, for an album that is on its surface so mathy and concept-heavy, Counterfeit Gelt succeeds because at heart it is often grippingly intense. Clever, musical and deftly creative, the album showcases the talents of an amazingly versatile and intuitive collective, brimming with chops that you simply can’t fake in gold or chocolate.