A nine-piece band from Vermont, Viperhouse refined a dense, warm sound reflected through their influences and their large original songbook. Simultaneously danceable and layered, Viperhouse toured extensively throughout the Northeast in the late '90s.
Founded by former So-Called Jazz Quintet saxophonist Michael Chorney, Viperhouse completed his vision of what he once described as a "modern day spasm band." The band takes their name from a Stuff Smith song titled "If You're a Viper," which paid tribute to the legendary Mezz Mezzrow, the founder of the Viper school of musicians who specialized in a sensual and laid-back style of music. This certainly describes Viperhouse aptly, who created a bed with a combination of slow horn drones and Ray Paczwowski's Hammond organ. On top of that bed floated vocalist/flutist Heloise Williams, whose sultry voice and darting flute lines imbued the band with a dreamlike quality.
The band followed their self-titled debut (1996) with a live set recorded at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in Canada titled simply Ottawa (1997). Taking inspiration from the experimental big bands of yore, the band offered up new arrangements of the music of their heroes, including an incendiary version of Duke Ellington's "Virgin Jungle" and a jazz-funk arrangement of Neil Young's "For the Turnstiles" on Shed, their 1997 studio release.
After two years of touring, the band recorded Lap Hen in front of an intimate crowd at the Common Ground CafÃ© in Brattleboro, VT, over two nights in the summer of 1999. Capturing the freshness of several still-new songs (including Chorney's "Scrod Scrapple" and Paczwowski's "Something in Between"), as well as readings of Sun Ra's "I'll Wait for You," Hamiet Bluiett's "Hatti Wall," and a pair of Ellington covers, the disc captured the band at the peak of that lineup.
In early 2000, Williams (who had previously recorded with Phish on their 1998 album Story of the Ghost) announced her departure from the group, along with trumpet player Brian Boyes and percussionist PJ Davidian. The group added tenor saxophonist Zack Tennyson. In the summer of 2001, Ray Paczwowski toured with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio in his newly formed octet.