Jammin' With the Jazz Ensemble: Family Day Concert

Staff writer Davis Renella '25 covers the Family Day performance of The Storm Clouds, Amherst College's own student jazz ensemble, a skillful demonstration which moved effortlessly between high-energy pieces and slower ballads.

Family Day on Oct. 23 featured a lively performance by the Amherst Jazz Ensemble. Led by jazz director Bruce Diehl, student performers wowed parents, playing on a temporary stage on the First Year Quad. Photo courtesy of Liam Archacki '24.

On Saturday, Oct. 23, the families of Amherst students gathered on campus to finally explore the grounds of Amherst and spend time with their kids in their college environment, having been kept away by Covid-19 restrictions for the past year and a half. For the occasion, the student performing arts groups appeared in force. Kicking off the event was Storm Clouds, the college’s own student jazz ensemble.

They took the stage just after noon, following an optimistic speech on the state of the college by President Biddy Martin and some half-joking, half-not-joking interjections by Professor Austin Sarat. A decently sized crowd formed, some filling the plastic chairs in the audience, while others milled about the quad. Everyone snapped to attention at the unexpected first downbeat from Director of Jazz Performance Bruce Diehl.

The first number was “Blues Five Jive.” The bass guitar and brass sections had a snappy musical conversation, before the saxophones carried on the tune with a bright, bouncy melody. The band then broke into solos, with Ari Dengler ’24 on tenor sax rising first from her chair onstage, playing a jaunty, carefree line over the classic blues-y harmonies in the rhythm section. Siobhan Angeles ’24 followed up on alto sax with a smooth melody that walked up and down the keys. Partway through Connor Barnes ’25’s trombone solo, the entire rest of the band joined in, backing up the soloist with their own licks and lending a hair-raising boost of energy to the music and adding momentum to the next section of solos.

Guest guitarist Bob Ferrier played a slow, sweet-sounding solo, and Diehl took a step back from directing the band to watch Ferrier at work, with a little smile on his face. He asked the drummer, Annika Ridky ’25, to make an adjustment partway through. Whether this was planned or a spontaneous decision was unclear, but his relaxed presence during the little chat onstage gave this moment a special charm and was perfectly in character with the jazz genre's informality. The band closed the piece firing on all cylinders, with a booming triplet crash leading into the final, sustained note.

Fitting for the beautiful foliage above the First-Year Quad, the ensemble then performed the classic “Autumn Leaves.” Ferrier’s musicianship really shone through in the introductory notes of the piece; in each measure, he effortlessly picked out arpeggios which climbed up to strummed chords at the end of each phrase. Paired with Lydia Silver ’25’s gentle melody on vocals, they gave us a memorable duet. Silver’s light and measured voice complemented the dance of Ferrier’s fingers on the strings. The entrance of the full band came as a surprise, as their musical texture was much more dense and rhythmically complex than the introduction. Listeners emerged from this transition disoriented. However, as the band came back to their familiar melody, this time at a faster tempo, it became clear that the previous section had been a foil to the core melody, one that contrasted its beauty with a moment of relative tension.

Moving into the solo section, Angeles provided a variation on the main melody that stuck to its general shape, but with a smoother rhythm, and added a few dark notes that tactfully highlighted the bittersweet tone of the song. Diehl later spoke with Silver for a moment, and she got back up to give a punchy scat-singing solo. Diehl paired her exit with a little clapping gesture and a subtle look of pride on her behalf. After the solos, a swing rhythm brought the energy up and led back to a trumpet solo by Cameron Chandler ’20, who played the original melody in bright tones that rang across the Quad. The band performed a compelling rendition of this beautiful tune, giving it their own funky and unorthodox flavor through biting transitions.

Next up was “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a performance that proved to be a delight. The whole band sounded a joyous melody, all together, which then broke into a dance between the brass and the saxophones. Each section brought out the other, and the line went back and forth, like two voices singing to one another. A transition to the main section followed, which briefly pulled back into more fraught territory when a moment of tension preceded the serenade in the vocal section. The song had an affectionate tone, and the upbeat tempo imbued the tune with a distinct brightness.

On her sax solo, Dengler conveyed the song’s joyous energy and indulged in the sweeter notes. Ferrier shined again on this number, starting out his section with a steady swing rhythm which steadily sank down into a luscious phrase in the lower register. On the final line of the song, Silver belted out “Bye” for several measures, and the band changed chords underneath before they both moved to the final, resolving statement. It was an impassioned performance, and my personal favorite.

They then performed Count Basie’s “Splanky”, featuring a big band sound with a bold, sassy persona that picked up from the more delicate energy from the tune before. The song took its power from its simplicity, and the band played to this strength by carrying out their performance with intensity. It started out with a low dynamic and a laid back attitude. The line rose and fell over a simple chord progression repeating underneath. The song featured solos from every type of saxophone, with Benjamin McMaster ’22 dealing out a punchy line to the audience on baritone sax. Right after Barnes’ trombone solo, just as the overcast skies started to clear a bit, as if on cue, the band took the song up a notch. With the return of the main melody, they started to blast the air with electrifying sound. They made a few rounds through this fanfare, and then moved up to a new key after the drum solo, which was an exciting surprise. The brass traded off lines with the saxophones every couple measures, before the song came to one last hit to finish things off with style.

Storm Clouds rounded off their already diverse program with Cannonball Adderly’s “Jive Samba,” opening with a swinging entrance with a quality that stood out from the rest of the songs. It had a sneaky, mischievous way about it, and the soloists brought this out in their understated performances. Ferrier had another fascinating passage, lazily stringing out the high notes before plunging into a technical section in the low register. It was unique and paired nicely with the ballads, as well as the high-energy pieces, to bring the concert to a close.

The band got a strong round of applause and started off the stage to make way for the choral groups to follow. I turned to my friends, and we chatted about the concert, recalling our favorite parts, before moving on to the next part of our days. I was lifted by the performance, and excited to see such talented musicians playing such great numbers as well as they did. It was the perfect way to spend an autumn afternoon at Amherst.