Amherst Bulletin

"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.

Young blood

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."

The Valley Advocate

"Amherst Jazz Orchestra"

Every other Monday for the past four years, the members of the Amherst Jazz Orchestra have held court at the Amherst Brewing Company - all 17 of them.
That's right: The AJO, as its founder, UMass music professor Dave Sporny, refers to it, is one of the Valley's only working jazz big band. The group is composed of a potent horn section - five saxophonists, five trumpets, and four trombonists - along with musicians on guitar, bass and drums.
If you've yet to experience the AJO, know one thing: They don't play any swing tunes. "We play things that focus on the music and the soloing," Sporny says. In other words, think Duke Ellington, not Benny Goodman.
Sporny formed the group about nine years ago, hoping to recapture the magic of a similar band he headed while living in Michigan. Most AJO members are full-time musicians. Others are music teachers and a few simply accomplished enthusiasts.
While the AJO is large, it leaves plenty of room at the Amherst Brewing Company for its fans, of which there are surprisingly many, Sporny says. "There's nothing else like this going on. It's very rare that you can walk in and hear this for free. We're all very surprised at the size of the audience."

Northampton Gazette

"Amherst College Celebrates"

Amherst College will host a three day series in honor of Ellington's birthday. This will include lectures, open rehearsals and performances, and a panel discussion on his role in American cultural history moderated by Frederick Tillis, director emeritus of the Fine Arts Center at UMass.
Several Elleington experts will take part in the symposium from Thursday through Saturday. The group consists of authors, musicians, teachers and historians.
Two concerts featuring Ellington's music will be held Thursday at 8 p.m. in Buckley Recital Hall. The Amherst Jazz Orchestra, directed by David Sporny, professor of music at UMass will perform. Guest soloists will include scholars who are participating in the symposium.
On Friday, the Amherst College Orchestra with guest conductor Gunther Schiller will perform "Night Creature". The University of Massachusetts Vocal Jazz Ensemble, directed by Horace Boyer, professor of music at the University of Massachusetts, will present sacred music by Ellington at 8 p.m..
The series takes place in Buckley Recital Hall at Amherst College. Admission is free. For reservations call Andy Jaffe, director of Jazz Studies, at 542-8308, Ellen Keel, concert manager, at 542-2195.

Northampton Gazette

"Beer & Brassy Tunes Go Together at Amherst Pub"

Five trumpeters, four trombonists, five saxophone players, a stand-up bass player, a guitarist with an amplifier, and a drummer behind a kit, all wedged in the front quarter of a restaurant, blowing through big-band arrangements like a house on fire. They cleared my sinuses right out.
This was the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, who played at the Amherst Brewing Company Monday night and gave patrons some brassy tunes to go with their beer.
The AJO (these days a 17-piece group) has been performing in the area for years; I first saw the band at the Fire and Water in Northampton in late 1995, where they took up half the room and were led - as they are now - by trombonist and UMass associate music professor David Sporny. Back then, Sporny conducted from in front of the orchestra, but at Monday's show he was right in the thick of it, playing with the band from the center of the pack. Every so often during songs he'd call out a name, and that person would be next in line to rise up and solo. But despite the large number of musicians (and therefore solos), the show ran like clockwork - the AJO is a tight unit.
I have to say my initial reactions to their sound this time around was that it reminded me of the old Tonight Show Band, with its jovial tone and big trumpet blasts acting as punctuation. I only make that comparison based on my small frame of reference, by the way. Actually, a few of the pieces the AJO performed were announced as being Thad Jones arrangements, and since Jones was a trumpet player and band arranger himself, Sporny and company may have been playing amazing tributes to the man's style and technique. Whatever the case, the stuff was snappy. Literally for some people, like the guy to my right who, for much of the evening's performance, had his eyes happily closed, shaking his head to the bright rhythms and snapping his fingers out to the side.
I felt like joining him during the AJO's run through Miles Davis' "Four", easily the highlight of the night. "Featuring the sax section", said Sporny, an understatement if ever I've heard one. The song's melody featured a repetitive phrase, and the five guys in the front took turns bouncing that bit between them like a hot potato. Toward the end of the tune this was happening so fast I literally couldn't keep up with who was playing; I felt like I was chasing the melody around the front line. I was always one guy behind.
There were other strong tunes, like the short and sweet version of Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town", and "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise," which featured more impressive feats by the sax section. Not to single them out too much, though - the whole band is a cohesive unit, creating and incredible wall of sound with interesting little patterns moving around if you feel like looking at the details.
Some people in the brewpub did just that, watching the AJO with such concentration you'd think they were going to be quizzed on it later. Others simply read newspapers and used the group's full, vibrant sound as exciting background Muzak. The nice thing about the Amherst Brewing Company's setup is that you can do both and not feel guilty. The atmosphere was casual, the show was free, and you could sit at a table directly in front of the band or hide yourself away in the back while still getting and earful and a good view. (Plus you can see the storefronts of Amherst through the window in back of the band, which makes for an interesting concert-going experience. People on the street stopped to gawk at the band's backs a few times throughout Monday night's show, thereby becoming a part of the show themselves.)
If you missed the Amherst Jazz Orchestra, don't worry, because they perform at the ABC on the first and third Monday of every month. They'll be there again on Feb. 15 at 8:30 p.m.