Matthew, Can You Sperry Me Again?

The following remembrance by Stuart Dempster, Professor Emeritus University of Washington School of Music, was posted as a comment to the initial Matthew Sperry passing announcement. The webmaster made a full post of it with Dempster’s permission.


Matthew, Can You Sperry Me Again?
by Stuart Dempster

Dedicated to the memory of jazz bassist extraordinaire Matthew Sperry

The title above goes to a score (immediately below) wherein I have welcomed Matthew Sperry, in his untimely passing, into my body and mind. The score is simply to allow Matthew Sperry, and his memory, to process soundly through the performer.


13 July 03

During the time of Matthew’s death on the morning of 5 June 2003 I had decided rather urgently to listen to the new Brainstun 2 CD that was about to be released; I had not heard anything by Matt for well over a year. Christian Asplund had sent a preliminary copy of the CD a couple of months earlier for the purpose of writing a blurb.* During that fateful morning I was playing some form of “needle drop” whereby I was concentrating on finding the “Construction” and other tracks that featured Christian and Matthew. I was not listening to the CD all the way through but rather seeking out the Matthew Sperry playing. Even now, some five weeks later, I cannot fathom why Matthew chose to visit me in that way, essentially saying “goodbye” to me. I did not read the email about his death until early the next day.

It soon became apparent that Matt had more in store for me. I now think that Matt was not saying “goodbye” but, rather, “hello.” My trombone practice during 6 to 14 June seemed to offer significant meditations on, or with, Matt. I was particularly aware of this on the earlier days immediately after his death, but during that entire week I was influenced by his presence. During my 15 June performance at Seattle’s CoCA (Center on Contemporary Art). I performed a small dedication piece for Matthew with my garden hose resonating in the resident (Gust Burns’) piano.

Matt, however, was not in the least bit finished with me. Therefore, I announced a continuation of the dedication mode, and launched into a set wherein Matt was either standing at my side or residing in my head. It was as though Matt was processing right through me. I consider this solo set to be among my strongest performances ever; even certain members of the audience knew there was something special going on. As I said to some people afterwards, “It seems like anything good during my set came directly from the influence of Matt Sperry.”

In writing the blurb for Brainstun 2, I could not proceed without writing about the unwitting nature of this CD as an “homage” to Matt.

Because Matt’s presence in me is so prominent and surprising, he is perhaps:

1. Teaching me to be attentive.
2. Urging me not to be complacent, and to honor whatever gifts I have, especially in improvisation.
3. Perhaps being for me a kind of nagging conscience or, more accurately, a guru.

If Matt is so willing to give me this time, I welcome him wholeheartedly. It is especially surprising because I did not feel that I knew Matt particularly well, although I have known him a long time—15 years. If I am having this amount of “dealings” with Matt, I cannot begin to imagine how present he must be in those who really new him well. I feel deeply that somehow I must honor his gifts, perhaps to continue some of the work that he might have done had he lived. It is at once an honor to be offered this kind of an opportunity while at the same time there is some trepidation that I cannot live up to that expectation. But I am ready for the challenge—indeed, I am in the midst of it—and I thank him deeply and reverently.

Tonight I performed a concert at AngelArmsWorks, Warner Blake’s and Karen Guzak’s new studio space remodeled from an old church in the town of Snohomish about 45 minutes northeast of Seattle. It is an absolutely stunning remake of this remarkable old building, and it is a pure delight to be in it. The only thing more out of hand about it is the garden area on the southeast corner of the old church. It is a montage of many plants—some of them edible—outdoor furniture, and art pieces. As the audience arrived, Renko and I plunked down in the midst of the shrubbery and began to play our wooden frogs and our birdcalls. I also played the conch with a wooden stick that sounded like a large frog or cricket. Eventually we moved about the outside space, “performing” on as many of the garden items (chairs, pipes, art objects, and so on) that we could. It sounded quite nice and gentle, and everybody seemed to love it.

Finally moving inside, I began by continuing with the birdcalls and other “objects”—even an undercurrent of these sounds during Warner’s introduction. Then I performed “Matthew, Can you Sperry Me Again?” that, while not as dramatic as it was at CoCA, still had some significant impact. I could feel Matt’s presence, and I made reference to the Arms of the Angels when I introduced the piece. Then I did several set pieces, including “Roulette”, “Didjeridervish” (with a short “didjeridemo”), “JDBBBDJ”, and “Acuhosery”. Many of these involved the audience singing or humming, and the second round of “JDBBBDJ” was a specific healing energy effort directed at “Lee” (one of the audience members). It seemed to help her significantly. At the end I played “My Funny Valentine” as a dedication to my own valentine, Renko. Through it all Matt remained present; certainly he would have appreciated the programming, healing, and sentiment. Matt also would have appreciated the “at-once-ness” of the healing, humor, and seriousness—and the happy faces of the audience as they got up for the pot-luck dinner.


*Blurb for Brainstun 2 CD on Present Music by Christian Asplund (June 03)

“Brainstun 2” unwittingly serves as an homage to the late and highly esteemed Matthew Sperry whose untimely death occurred just a few days before this CD release. Sperry and Christian Asplund are featured in three particularly poignant and spiritual “Constructions.” Asplund, in his well-crafted compositions, delightfully teases us on those slippery slopes between composition and improvisation; in the liner notes, Michael Hicks provides “a perspective” on Asplund’s music that is as insightful as it is loving. In “Brainstun 2” Sperry and Greg Campbell admirably supply an energetic rhythm that propels one from track to track while, at the same time, elegant melodic explorations are delivered with aplomb by Jessica Lurie and, indeed, all the Brainstun musicians.

Stuart Dempster, Professor Emeritus University of Washington School of Music.