"Jazz Orchestra keeps the beat at Brewing Company"
They were jammed in like sardines, just as they've been for years on alternating Monday nights. The bass player was wedged in a corner behind a partition, the trombone players sat elbow-to-elbow on bar stools, and the trumpet players were lined up tight against a back wall and windows.
But for the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, on this mid-July evening, this was home: the cozy confines of the Amherst Brewing Company. For 13 years, the 17-piece ensemble has been playing here every other Monday and filling the tavern with a buoyant, brassy mix of music from jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis as well as more modern composers.
"We're not a traditional big band - we're not about playing Benny Goodman or 'In the Mood', though we might sometimes do stuff like that", said Dave Sporny, the band leader and a veteran trombonist. "The emphasis is on playing a variety of material from different composers and giving everyone a chance to solo. We're all dedicated players and we've been doing this for years out of a love of the music...we play here for food and drink, and we're OK with that."
The lineup of the AJO, as it's known, is something of a who's-who of the Valley's brass and horn players and teachers, though some members hail from farther afield, like the Berkshires or Connecticut. The band also draws on a cadre of regular back-up players when a member can't make a show. Regulars and subs alike are all working musicians or talented hobbyists, many with gigs in other bands as well.
There's drummer Jeff Holmes, for example, director of the jazz studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and leader of the Jeff Holmes Big Band, another local jazz ensemble. Bassist Don Baldini, who teaches music at Keene State College in New Hampshire, is a former Los Angeles studio musician who toured and performed with "The Tonight Show", Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and other noted singers.
The AJO - the lineup comprises five saxophonists, five trumpeters, four trombonists, and bass, guitar and drums - has played other area gigs over the years, such as the annual Jazz Festival at Holyoke Community College, and it has backed numerous guest soloists as well, including John Abercrombie and Yusef Lateef. But their bread and butter, so to speak, has been their role as Amherst Brewing Company's house band, where they've developed a loyal following.
That made the band'd July 18 gig, on a warm, muggy Monday evening, a memorable one. As Sporny, a retired UMass jazz professor and trombone player, told the crowd the night, "After 13 years, this is our last performance in this venue. It's been a great ride, and we hope you've all enjoyed it like we have."
Same gig, more space
It's not that the tavern is closing - it's relocating from its downtown spot on North Pleasant Street to the site of the former Gold's Gym, in the small plaza at the intersection of Amity Street and University Drive. The band will have a brief hiatus until the business reopens in mid to late August. Sporny says he's looking forward to playing in the new setting, which will have a dedicated music room with additional space both for musicians and an audience.
Tim Atherton, a trombonist who's been with AJO since its start 15 years ago, says playing at the Amherst Brewing Company has presented logistical challenges. He's spent several years, he joked, playing with "a crash cymbal in my lap, " as he sits right next to Holmes, the drummer.
For all that, said Atherton, a jazz professor at Westfield State College, gigging at the tavern has been a great experience. "The acoustics are really good, and there's a real intimacy there. The audience can see the inner workings of the band, like Dave giving the signal to someone to solo. It brings everyone into the show, and the sound embraces the listeners without overwhelming them."
That vibe was apparent right from the start of that Monday's show, as the band launched into its first tune, the bluesy "Neverbird" by New York trumpeter and composer Raymond Brown, punctuated by a long solo by trumpeter Jeff Stevens. At the tables in front of the group, diners' heads and shoulders were bobbing to the beat; customers standing toward the back, some holding glasses of beer joined in, their feet tapping out the rhythm.
A Mix of upbeat and slower songs followed: Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage", Duke Ellington's "Perdido" and a harmonic arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne" by composer Bob Florence, for which three of the saxophone players swapped their horns for clarinets or flutes. Meantime, baritone sax player Dick Poccia - his day job is teaching biology at Amherst College - added a slow, graceful solo.
Sporny, who led a number of jazz groups and taught in Michigan before coming to UMass in 1982, says he always wanted to have a big group here in western Massachusetts. When he first formed the band in 1996, it played at the former Fire & Water Cafe in Northampton, an even smaller venue than Amherst Brewing Company. There were 20 musicians in the band at the time "but somehow we all fit in", Sporny said.
Playing as long as they have, he adds, has allowed some younger players - often from local college music programs - to join the ranks over the years. One of the newer players, for instance, is saxophonist Mat Schumer, a graduate student in jazz studies at UMass.
"That's one of the nice things about the band", said Holmes, who's been playing with the orchestra for about nine years. "There's a real connection with the audience and with up-and-coming musicians. We see a lot of our students here - it's a great opportunity for them to hear this kind of music live and see a big band in action."
It's also nice to get some younger blood like Schumer into the group, he added with a laugh, "since a lot of us are starting to look like we need Grecian Formula."
Holmes, who's primarily a trumpeter and pianist, says he's gotten a kick out of playing drums for the Amherst Jazz Orchestra and laying down a rhythmic foundation. And he's composed a song to commemorate the band's time at the Brewing Company: the swinging "Close Quarters Blues". Just before taking a break, the band broke into the tune, with every player adding a short solo, and the crowd gave them a rousing ovation at the finish.
"I know I'm a little biased, but I think we've got a real good group here that deserves a little more recognition," Sporny said a few days later. "I'm proud of these guys, and I really love them."