Welcome Matt

Apart from the obvious tools of the trade -- cables, guitar picks, a really good head of hair -- musicians often require something more likely associated with downtown businessmen. An organizer, the kind that lets you keep track of your schedule and store important notes, can be critical to the aspiring rock star. Matthew Sabatella has a doozy: a leather-bound DayRunner (the Entrepreneurial Edition) complete with compartments for business cards, addresses and phone numbers, a detailed weekly calendar, and even a nifty MEMO-RY section.

Even that may not be enough. Sabatella is one of South Florida's busiest musicians these days, working double duty as bassist in Diane Ward's band while he gets his own group off the ground. Add in the 35 hours per week he puts in at the obligatory day job, and Sabatella faces tough choices about how to parcel out his time. "Pretty much every night I'll come home and either make a quick dinner or grab a bite somewhere and then go to rehearsal or a show or a meeting or go make flyers or do something," he says. "But there's not enough time for everything, so I tend to overlook sleep as the one thing that I don't fit in."

On the surface, the back-breaking schedule doesn't make sense: The gig with Ward would be enough for most musicians. Anyone who's heard Ward's band knows she's destined for greatness; Sabatella's fluid bass playing and smooth vocal harmonies play an important role in that.

But Sabatella isn't just any musician. Having established his rep as co-founder, bassist, and part-time frontman of Broken Spectacles (he garnered a South Florida Rock Award as best bassist), Sabatella has emerged as one of the scene's most promising talents -- a skilled musician (he also plays guitar and drums) with a fistful of songs good enough to nab him a spot in the recent ASCAP showcase in Miami Beach. And besides, Sabatella's latest project isn't just any band.

The story begins early last year, as Broken Spectacles was on its last legs after a six-year roller-coaster ride through the South Florida music world. "When we started the band it was funny," recalls Sabatella. "We were 18, 19, thinking, yeah, we're gonna be on MTV by the time we're 20, 21."

The Broken Spectacles were brilliant and often challenging. And yet, even though the Specs were highly acclaimed, they never quite found their audience. "The big thing is, there were three songwriters and three singers," states Sabatella, referring to fellow bandmates Ed Hale and Dave Rubenstein, both of whom played guitar and also handled lead vocals on selected songs. "It was very much like three solo projects going on. That was the fundamental problem, I guess. We spent all the years telling people, 'Don't worry, you'll catch on, you'll like it,' because we liked it."

But local audiences never seemed to grasp the concept of a band with three strong personalities, and by the end of 1993 Sabatella had begun performing solo acoustic shows. "I loved the band," he relates, "but it just seemed a little bit easier to communicate when I was doing my own material."

Sabatella's new group was formed piecemeal, almost haphazardly, and members only recently settled on a name: Sabatella. "We spent some time talking about names, and those were actually some very funny sessions," says the band's namesake. "It was actually someone else who said, 'How about just Sabatella?' And pretty much everyone else instantly said, 'Yeah, I could live with that.'"

Matt Sabatella was first joined by keyboardist Lee Frank, known locally for having collaborated with guitarist extraordinaire Joel Schantz on the 1993 Bad Karma release My Only Problem. Frank and Sabatella played as a duo for several months and met up with singer-songwriter Brian Franklin. Franklin, a former member of the boogie-grunge band Mr. Tasty and the Bread Healers who had been cultivating a solo career, joined the band as lead guitarist in May.

The three continued with acoustic performances; when an electric lineup was needed, Sabatella switched to bass and Ari Schantz (Joel's brother) helped out on drums. The final pieces of Sabatella fell into place last fall, when Franklin recruited bassist David Chaskes, who brought along his long-time friend, drummer Jordan Steele Lash.

"We came together to support Matt," jokes Chaskes. "It kind of happened by accident," adds Frank. Sabatella has come to realize that the full-band backing enhances the power of his songs. "When I started playing the solo shows, I loved the freedom," he says. "I was so psyched to be up there without a band. It just felt so good to be there by myself."

Then Sabatella saw a videotape of one of his shows. "I'm watching it and I'm like, 'Oh, is that all it is? It's just a guitar?' Because I guess I'm up there singing and playing, and I'm hearing the whole band in my head, and so I'm thinking that a whole lot more music is happening than actually is."

Despite the band's relative newness to the scene, Sabatella has developed a strong following based on performances that leave listeners groping for adjectives to describe what they've just heard. In terms of material, the band is all over the musical map: Pensive acoustic-centered ballads like "Memory Coast" and "Butterfly" mix with grittier numbers such as the bluesy "Rain on You," which is punctuated by a vicious, extended solo by Franklin. "Capture" springs from the same well as "Rain," but takes on a slightly jazzier feel thanks to Frank's smooth organ work. The anthemic "Uniform," which has emerged as a crowd favorite, is a straight-ahead rocker.

Which leads us back to the essential items for musicians. While Sabatella (the musician) may have a topnotch organizer, Sabatella (the band) is sorely lacking in one key department -- the matter of a compartmentalizing its unique sound. This is no trivial matter. These days it seems the entire music industry -- from top label executives and radio programmers to A&R scouts and lowly critics -- thrives on neatly pigeonholing acts, but Sabatella defies easy classification.

Attempts have ranged from the sublime (after a recent show, a first-time listener walked up and suggested a cross between Lenny Kravitz and R.E.M.) to the absurd (my offering that there was some sort of stylistic connection with mid-Seventies Chicago, although, in my defense, it should be noted I was thinking specifically of the dozen or so gems penned by Terry Kath, the band's late, tragically underrated guitarist).

The difficulty of pinning down Sabatella's sound stems from the diverse experiences and talents of each band member. Sabatella claims the Beatles as his earliest influence, and he's now spending a lot of time listening to Tom Waits and classical music. Frank, well steeped in blues and jazz, attended the University of Miami's music school. (He downplays the experience, saying, "People think there's a certain amount of cloning that goes on. I'm not looking to be Bruce Hornsby.") By contrast Franklin is a self-taught musician whose roots are firmly planted in rock and roll. He cites the Allman Brothers, Bruce Springsteen, and Eric Clapton as his primary influences. "I think I'm the least educated, least disciplined one in the band," he notes.

Lash, who studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, leans heavily toward roots music -- he cites blues, country, and jazz. Before joining Sabatella, Lash spent eight months playing in a group headed by Muddy Waters's former (and Eric Clapton's current) harmonica sidekick, Jerry Portnoy. Chaskes finds himself on bass after a musical journey that has included a stint as guitarist in a gospel band, extended travels in Israel, and, most recently, playing sitar at an Indian restaurant-club on South Beach. "I would love to work the sitar into the group," he relays. "And not just for the sound, but because we can really make songs around it."

The members of Sabatella have managed to harness the unwieldy patchwork of their individual influences and talents, and fashion them into a cohesive whole: Chaskes's droning, Eastern-influenced bass work meshes perfectly with Lash's powerful drumming; texture is added by Frank's blues-tinged organ and jazzy piano; Franklin's manic, unorthodox guitar work provides grit and power; Sabatella's distinctive voice -- a deep instrument that can be raspy or crystal clear, depending on the song -- provides a spellbinding center.

During a recent rehearsal, as the members goofed on new age and debated descriptions ("I like 'timeless' better than 'classic rock,'" Sabatella interjects at one point. "Or maybe toes dipped in the river of obscurity"), Sabatella returned his full attention to the DayPlanner, where he must juggle the band's rehearsal schedule with recording work at Criteria Studios for Diane Ward's new project, which should be out within the next month or two. Then she'll want to solidify her band and tour. "I don't really know what's going to happen on that," Sabatella says. "At this point, my own music is going to have to take somewhat of a precedence for me, just like hers is going to take a precedence for her. I love playing with Diane, and I want to do it as long as I can, but things are happening really fast for me right now and I don't want to fight that."

Sabatella and Ward have discussed the possibility of mounting a joint tour, which would allow him to keep a foot in both bands.

That decision is at least a month away, and Sabatella is clearly too busy enjoying the present to worry about the future. "The last year has just been amazing," he says, "going from where I was last year at this time. Just the way, without the hassle of advertising for musicians and auditioning and all that stuff, everything's falling into place and it's just kept growing, and this next year is looking very good, too."

Indeed it is: Sabatella's become a hot property. He's being courted by well-connected managers who want to represent him, and a couple of lawyers are separately shopping the band's demos among various labels in New York. So for the time being, Sabatella's sleep will have to suffer. "But I like it like that," he reflects. "I would much rather be running around like I am than sitting home watching Roseanne."

Sabatella plays tomorrow (Friday) at Rose's Bar and Music Lounge, 754 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, and Sunday at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach. Anyone who wants to keep up with Matt Sabatella's busy schedule can call his information line at 949-1246.


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