Sketches of Influence – Alive in the 518 Jazz Scene

Written by on December 30, 2023

Sketches Of Influence at Alias Coffee Roasters By Seth Casale.

Walking into Alias coffee, welcomed by the warm smell of roasted coffee, 2 thoughts enter one’s mind.  The first being obviously this place smells amazing.  Secondly the place seems very small, as the retail entry way is tight with a small café area to your left.  Once you enter the venue you find a lovely venue for Jazz or acoustic music with high vaulted ceilings and a very warm, welcoming environment.  The layout includes couches and table seating, and they offer beer or wine from a small bar.   I wondered how the acoustics would be given the unique room shape.  I soon learned, that just like the set I watched, the acoustics were marvelous.  I was soon greeted by Joe Barna, proving to be a magnanimous host, providing pizza and salad for the considerable crowd.  Being myself, admittedly not a jazz guy, I wasn’t sure what was in store, but with a knowledge of Joe’s proficiency I was certain the musicianship would be top notch.  Barna wrote each of the compositions himself, spanning several years, and his musicians this night did not disappoint in the execution of those arrangements.

The show began with “Shorter Than Joe” as I settled into a plush leather couch.  A moving straight jazz theme here developed into solos all around.  Wyatt Ambrose employed some quite interesting volume swells in his solo here, which really drew my ear, and then Evan Jagels took over with a wonderful solo on his upright bass.  The bass solo included some very nice pauses with harmonics ringing out and at that point I knew I was right about the caliber of players Joe puts together.

One the next song, “Theme for George” Thom Avella lead the way with a wonderful Saxophone solo on this boppy upbeat number that Barna originally penned for George Moscatello.  Ambrose’s solo here was also quite something, as he played through the theme, deftly laying down dazzling microtonal play perfectly balanced as the band kept it cooking.  At this point I did appreciate some difficulty hearing Avella’s tenor sax, which was likely my seating versus the musician’s orientation on stage.

After a very brief moment address of the crowd, the band moved onto “Side By Side” This is what I came for.  This tune built, smoldering with and eerie feel.  Joe utilized many of his cymbal techniques here that I find so intriguing, making this song the most toward the Avant Garde of the set.  The horn and the guitar swell into the main theme, and Jagels sweet sounding harmonics again brought a beautiful balance to this one as it transitions into a more recognizable jazz groove for only a moment before they take a turn into an open soundscape highlighted again by Joe’s masterful cymbal trickery.  Then, finally a drum solo.  If you are not aware of Joe Barna, I suggest you get out to see him.  As a drummer myself I appreciate his style and proficiency, but even more than that, when he’s cooking or soloing, he just kicks ass.  This was my favorite tune of the night.

It was at this point that I reminded myself that Joe had composed each of these tunes, and I’d like you to read that again because if you think of him as a drummer or even a great drummer, you’re not getting the whole story.

Joe then addressed the crowd again introducing “Captain Dark and His Mighty Vessel” it would seem he’s not a fan of his former employer, a cruise line I will not name though he did.  Avella switched to alto sax here, which I could hear much more clearly in the mix of instruments.  The solo sections here were true solos, as each other musician dropped to silence.  This set up Avella on his, the last solo, opportunity for some theatrics as he paused to build tension.  He continued to pause long enough to take a stroll the bar and fill a glass with ice water from an interminably slow running tap as Evan called out for one of his own.  Avella ambled back to the stage both drinks in hand delivering the refreshment to his bandmate before at last taking his solo.  The crowd seemed to enjoy this as much as I did.

Next the band went onto “The Scent of The City” grooving on a compelling theme in 7/8 where Avella moved back to alto sax and Jagels drove the fast, boppy beat.  Given they’d had only a few hours of rehearsal together, this tune was another marvel.

On the next song, “Where Do We Go from Here” things got heavy, as Barna introduced the song intimating that he’d written it about the end of a romantic relationship.  This song was billed a ballad and built into just that.  As any jazz ballad would, mournful sax leads the way here, perfect tonally and dynamically for the mood.

The final song, “Family” ended with a final thank you to the crowd and then a break beat driven blues jam joined by Jeremy Gold who had been waiting in the wings.  The jam circled through the solos driven by the dueling sax players for a fun feel culminating in the sax players settling into beautiful harmony lines to end the song.

If you get a chance, dear reader, go see this group.  Evan Jagels and Wyatt Ambrose play in their own group in Oneonta’s Kill Deer, which I’d wager is a great show as well.

As a neophyte in terms of jazz appreciation and enjoyment, I found this performance to be immensely engaging and enjoyable.  There was music of practically every ilk, and all carried off with tremendous precision and balance.  You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate what Joe Barna has done with this group.



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