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  • Glenn Siegel

To Build a Band: Ember Brings It to Amherst

The added oomph that a working band can provide raises the music to new heights. Chance encounters and new configurations of musicians can be exciting and result in flying sparks, but most advances in jazz history come from the sustained excellence of stable ensembles. It stands to reason, of course, that the more a group works on something – whether it’s double-plays or marching in formation – the more precise they get. But creative musicians not only have to master the technical elements en masse, the best continually innovate and invigorate the music, while deepening relationships with each other.

Ember, Caleb Wheeler Curtis (sax, trumpet), Noah Garabedian (bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums), are developing a body of work and forging a group identity that makes for fireworks on stage. The trio has been together for about five years and have three releases to their name, but becoming a true working band is not only about longevity and the number of gigs played, but its willingness to come together to make a collective statement.

Ember is doing just that. Everyone in the band is the leader and everyone composes for the ensemble. Their Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares performance at The Drake in Amherst on December 14, provided a glimpse of what an ensemble coalescing sounds like. The group played a wide-ranging set of music drawn from their latest recording, August in March (Imani Records), for 60 attentive listeners.

The band can swing. “Angular Saxon” (Sperrazza) and “Break Tune” (Curtis) evolved into burners, revealing an almost casual virtuosity. Curtis was flying across his straight alto saxophone, cleanly articulating notes, tossing out impactful phrases with alacrity. He juxtaposed those runs with elongated, split-toned honks that cut across the brisk tempo, heightening tension.

The three can write tunes. “Floatation Device and the Shivers” (Curtis) and “Sam Cooke” (Sperrazza) have a pop directness that’s easy to like, and have hooks I’ve been humming since Thursday. Each of the compositions had personality and a point of view.

The band all gets along. Hanging out after the concert, the musicians launched into a pun-filled comedy routine that had Priscilla Page and I in stiches. I suggested they find a way to incorporate the material into their performance. Thus far, this democratically run ensemble has only recorded original work, but there is talk their next project might involve arranging the compositions of others. I’m sure the selection process will be lively, but without acrimony.

Caleb Curtis was my point of contact for this concert. I met the 37-year old, Ann Arbor native when he performed with the Michael Musillami Trio +3 in March, 2022. Curtis is smart, curious and very talented. His main instrument is the straight alto, also known as the stritch, made famous by the great reedman Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Curtis also played trumpet and the sopranino sax, a smaller cousin of the soprano. Building on Eddie Harris’ late-1960s innovation, Curtis inserted a saxophone mouthpiece into his trumpet to create an otherworldly sound on what’s called a “reed trumpet”. Curtis is quite knowledgeable about the history and variety of saxophones, running the entire family down for us during dinner. It’s little surprise he is friends with Jon Iragabon and Scott Robinson, two practicing scholars of all things sax-related.

Vinnie Sperrazza is a witty and engaging guy from Utica, NY (also home to drummer Jimmy Wormworth and saxophonist JR Monterose), who like his Ember-mates, now lives in Brooklyn. Like Curtis and Garabedian, Sperrazza is well versed in both current and historic jazz recordings, and his thoughtful writing on the music can be found on his Substack, Chronicles. “Mashups, juxtaposition and collage are part of American culture, modern life, and are basic flavors in jazz,” Sperrazza wrote in his tribute to Billy Hart. The Ember concert in Amherst, with varied tunes moving from one to the other without pause, embodied that sentiment. Sperrazza played with a rock edge, while giving the music exactly what it needed across mood and tempo. In energy and attitude, he reminded me of a young Jim Black.

Noah Garabedian is among a cohort of young-ish bass players (Max Johnson, Mali Obamsawin, Brandon Lopez, Kim Cass), who are reinvigorating the bottom end of jazz ensembles. He certainly did that for Ember. Using his own small amp, he produced one of the deepest, fattest bass sounds I’ve heard in years. On his slow blues, “Snake Tune”, his walking bass line provided the backbone for his bandmates to accent and embellish. Other Garabedian originals, like “Easy Win”, and “August in March”, are short understated snapshots that do not draw undue attention to the composer, and are all the more powerful for that. Raised in Berkley, California, Garabedian is the musical director for the dance show, “Rhythm Is Life,” featuring choreographer and world-renowned tap dancer Dormeshia, and recently released Consider the Stars Beneath Us, featuring Dayna Stephens, Carmen Staaf and Jimmy Macbride.

Pulled in so many directions while paying Brooklyn rents amidst dwindling opportunities to play, makes keeping a band together tough sledding. That Ember has persevered and continues to thrive, is a testament to their drive and vision. Jazz Shares is happy to play a small role in the evolution of a real band.

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