Swing Time: Aron Magner’s SPAGA

Jeff Tamarkin on August 15, 2019
Swing Time: Aron Magner’s SPAGA

Aron Magner unplugs for a (mostly) acoustic collection of jazzy originals that recall his days before the Disco Biscuits.

When he plays with the Disco Biscuits, the band he co-founded in 1995, Aron Magner surrounds himself with a bank of electronic keyboards that allows him to channel virtually any sound one might want to coax out of the instrument. Since the band’s inception in Philadelphia, that signature, synthesized sound have been a crucial component of the Biscuits’ improvisational approach, providing much of the coloration they’ve incorporated as the band continued to explore and grow.

SPAGA, Magner’s new trio, couldn’t be more different. Here, along with upright bassist Jason Fraticelli and drummer Matt Scarano, Magner plays jazz—mostly on acoustic piano, with just enough electronic keyboard in the mix to remind longtime fans who they’re listening to. SPAGA’s recently released, self-titled, six-track album—comprised of original Magner compositions—showcases another side of the leader’s considerable talent by bringing the musician full circle.

“I started taking piano lessons at an early age and stayed with it well beyond my young childhood friends,” says Magner, recalling his first brush with a keyboard. “You play piano for years, then you get tired of it, but your parents make you stick with it. At 10 years old, I realized I didn’t like it anymore and stopped. But then, three years later, I wanted to start playing piano again.”

This time, he stuck with it, learning classical music, a genre that he never quite warmed up to. When a new piano teacher introduced him to jazz, Magner knew he’d found his direction. He was still a jazzer when he met the other future members of the Disco Biscuits at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s when everything changed.

“I’d never played in a rock band before, and playing in a rock band was a lot more fun than playing jazz,” he says. Around that time, he also got turned on to the music of the Grateful Dead. Magner dedicated himself to pursuing improvisational music and—long story short—over the next couple of decades, he’s played a key role one of the most popular jambands on the scene.

But recently, Magner felt a calling to revisit his roots and started looking for musicians to take part in a new combo.

At first, he worried that he might be getting in over his head. “I was very nervous about trying to bring in people that are in that jazz world,” he says. “I wanted to recruit a trio to make a jazz album, but here’s the kicker: I’m not really a jazz musician. I didn’t want to feel self-conscious about playing with people that are clearly educated in the world of jazz, and who play with people that can certainly run circles around me and know crazy theories. I didn’t want to think, ‘Oh, what are they thinking about my playing?’ I just wanted to feel comfortable doing whatever it was that I was doing.”

After speaking with fellow Philadelphia musician Fraticelli, Magner knew he’d found his first collaborator for the project. The jazz bassist brought in drummer Scarano, and when the trio went into the recording studio and began working on the tunes Magner had composed, they knew right away they were meant to work together.

“There was a lot of playing, trying to arrange the songs within a trio environment and figuring out how the story of the improvisation should be told,” he admits, “because each time we played there were drastically different stories—every single time. You kind of lose perspective because you do so many takes and they’re all different stages of good.”

At times, Magner says, he had his doubts about whether he was truly capable of making quality jazz. But then, he says, “We’d go through the takes and it was always surprising, like, ‘Wow, this is great! I don’t remember it being this good last week.’”

SPAGA, the album, is largely acoustic-based music, but Magner felt that at least some manipulation and augmentation was necessary in order to draw a connection to the music he’s made with the Disco Biscuits all these years. His decision to mostly unplug came during a period when his primary band was more active than they’ve been in years, and when his bandmates were also venturing outside the jamtronica space in their free time. (Bassist Marc Brownstein launched the funk project Star Kitchen in 2018, and guitarist Jon Gutwillig has a podcast and has picked up some studio work around his current home in Los Angeles.)

The acoustic-electronic mix on SPAGA’s debut is most prominent, and most satisfying, on “Creed,” the album’s opening track and first single. “I wanted to keep it pure, but my wife said, ‘Your character is synths. I’m not saying do something like electronic bass, but it’s part of your identity. You don’t want to completely shed who you are,’” he says. “I definitely had arguments for why I wanted to keep it organic and pure and just the piano, but that really resonated with me.”

To achieve the mix he was seeking, Magner resorted to his effects boxes, adding what he calls, “really exaggerated cinematic reverb,” without losing the acoustic-jazz feel that is at the core of SPAGA’s sound. “I didn’t want it to be prominent,” he says. “I wanted it to just be like, ‘Oh, what is that?’ Just a nice, soft bed that comes in every now and again.”

Now that he’s made the jazz plunge, Magner wants to take his time riding it out and seeing where it all leads. He will, of course, continue to make music with the Biscuits and hopes, he says, that some of his jazz experience will find its way into that band. “I want to see how this resonates with people,” he says. “We just came back from two sold-out SPAGA shows in New Orleans and there was one point where, after ‘Marionette in the Snow,’ which is kind of a softer tune—or at least it starts soft and it ends soft—I went to introduce the song and the band, and there was this eruptive cheer that prevented me from speaking. That was the first moment where I was like, ‘Cool. OK. We’re on to something here.’”