When Angelo Spagnolo attended Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA), in the mid-'00s, Ben Opie, the saxophonist in Opek and Thoth Trio, was teaching there. One Friday afternoon, Spagnolo noticed a CD Opie had just bought that featured traditional Japanese music and asked if he could borrow it over the weekend. When when Spagnolo returned the disc the following Monday, he told his teacher, "By the way, I transcribed one of the pieces on it."
"I said, ‘You're kidding me,'" Opie recalls. "I already knew he was a great student. But when he did that, I said, ‘Boy, this guy's really on top of that.'"
In addition to figuring out how to copy Japanese music from a recording, Spagnolo was spending his teen-age years absorbing everything from hip hop to classic and avant-garde jazz. He graduated from CAPA in 2006 and moved to New York, studying music at the New School and eventually receiving a BFA in performance and a certificate in music therapy. Now he leads the group In One Wind, which brings together some equally diverse elements: a base in folk music, combined with jazz-like harmonies and ever-shifting tempos that sound complex but never forgo an interesting song structure.
Spagnolo was born in Bloomfield and lived in a few different places around the northern neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. He started at CAPA in 10th grade, at which point his guitar skills were already fairly advanced.
"Angelo came in [having] a pretty mature voice. He already had chops when he started," Opie says. "He really liked rich harmonies and chord substitutions and he really had an ear for harmony. It was one of his strengths."
Spagnolo was also open to different styles of music, and soon his teacher had introduced him to works by jazz mavericks like Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra. This proved to be significant: Once at the New School, Spagnolo studied with drummer Gerry Hemingway, who played on many of Braxton's seminal albums. One of the classes with Hemingway was called Sound in Time; it explored the concepts of how pure sound can create music. For the first assignment, in which the class was told to "go out and record anything," Spagnolo recorded the sound of four electric razors, humming in and out of tune together.
"A lot of it was about looking at these sounds and letting them guide you in your extended technique," Spagnolo says. "How could we literally translate these sounds into a piece, and not just for that novelty, but [by thinking], ‘What are the elements going on here? Why is this sonically kind of interesting -- the rhythm or the progression of it?'"
While he's always liked different styles of music, Spagnolo wasn't sure how that would play out in his own work. "There was always two sides of listening to music. [There's] really loving music and … touching upon different aspects of musical sounds," he says. "Then there's this other thing: I like a lot of pop music, folk music and more traditional stuff.
"I was seeing that the endless possibilities were becoming pretty overwhelming," he says. "You can do anything. [I began] looking at the question of what was the role of the composer, and the composer being the performer, improvising of any sort. In what parameters are you improvising? There was a lot of thinking about that kind of stuff."
When he started writing the songs for what eventually became In One Wind, he shifted from his jazz background to something more basic. "I started writing some simple folk songs," he says. "I thought, ‘All right, these are my limitations. I'm going to have these three chords or this simple form or some formula of what can be limitations, and just see what I can do with it.'"
But In One Wind is far from an ordinary folk band, as the band's roster bears out. Singers Lily Claire Nussbaum and Mallory Glaser share vocal duties with Spagnolo, in a manner where each one sings off-center rather than sticking to a lead-singer-with-harmonies role. Along with a rhythm section, the band includes Steven Lugerner, who plays an array of reeds including bass clarinet and English horn. (Since recording the album, Nussbaum has been replaced by a vocalist who doubles on trombone.)
On its debut album How Bright a Shadow!, the band plays freely with tempo and rhythm. The opening track "Tuck Me in With Bells" frequently jumps into what sounds like a different song for just a few bars, in a manner that's almost similar to a Carl Stalling cartoon soundtrack. "Go Follow John" alternates between two waltz rhythms that differ significantly from one another in tempo.
Spagnolo says his writing was partially inspired by an article he read about iconoclastic musician Fred Frith, who approaches compositions as a series of durations, rather than a blend of chords. Suddenly the idea of a melody became more expansive to him, bringing all of those far-flung influences together. "You can treat time like more like melody, where you can switch [into different tempos], right next to each other," he explains. "You can go from one melody to the next note. So with In One Wind, we're … writing these rhythmic melodies where they're more like speed melodies."
IN ONE WIND. 9 p.m. Thu., Sept. 29. Thunderbird Café, 4023 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $7-10. 412-682-0177 or www.thunderbirdcafe.net