By Emily J. Weitz
As enticing an evening as one spent under the twinkling lights at Wölffer Estate Vineyards sounds — especially when accented by a glass of deep merlot and the swooning of a saxophone — when Jazz Jam Session founder Claes Brondal was approached about bringing the jam to the estate, he was hesitant.
“Wolffer has the feeling of being fancy,” said Brondal, “and while I like that, I didn’t want the music to be inhibited.”
His commitment to the freedom of musicians to create has remained paramount as the Jam Session has traveled around the community, from Bay Burger to Bay Street to Page 63 Restaurant.
“Once you get situated in a place, you have to be committed,” Brondal said. “You can’t move around.”
So when he decided to give it a try, he knew it would be at least for the season. He wrote up a mission statement to make sure that the people at Wölffer Estate understood what the Jam Session was about, and that it could not be compromised.
“We are creating uninhibited music,” Brondal says, “not background music, but the main focus. We want people to be able to create without fear, and not worry about the appearance, but only about the music.”
The response from the vineyard was one of complete receptivity, and the result has been a new chapter in the five-year-old story of the Jam.
“The acoustics are so great that we’ve been able to return to the recording styles of the 1950s and 60s,” says Brondal. “The acoustics create the warm sound of the room and the audience.”
This means that, while each instrument needed its own microphone and needed to be controlled individually at other venues, at Wölffer, just two mics can capture the whole sound.
“In the old days,” says Brondal, “there were two mics in the room. The trumpet would be on the left and the bass on the right. That had a certain charm. So we’ve done that at Wölffer and it works really well. It makes sense, because it’s the era of jazz that we’re playing.”
Even though it’s important that the music is the focus of the evening, the Jam Session, born in the noisy dining room of Bay Burger, has never been a place where you had to be silent. There’s no quiet policy, and there’s room for life in the background. The silence comes when the music demands it, and in its best moments, everyone in the audience is held in awe.
“People are forgiving and unforgiving,” says Brondal. “If the music is happening, people are listening. If the music is not happening, people are not listening. You’re not forced to sit there and be quiet because you paid a lot of money or anything. But sometimes, the music commands it.”
He compares the Jam to any moment at a train station in New York City when a crowd is held captivated by a street performer.
“It’s not only the quality, but it’s that it’s authentic. They’re pouring their heart into it. Whether you like jazz or not, if there is a nerve and a passion pouring out of it, it’s inevitable that you’ll be attracted to it.”
As a way to keep the Jam Session fresh, this season Brondal introduced a new element: the special guest series. Once a month, local realtor Douglas Elliman sponsors a special guest to come and play with the regulars, and it always brings an element of surprise.
“Special guests bring a tremendous amount of new energy,” says Brondal. “They help to keep it fresh and encourage us to leave our comfort zone. Everyone will be in new territory.”
One of the original special guests, who has since returned again and again, is trumpet player Randy Brecker.
“He is the most recorded trumpet player in the world,” says Brondal. “He has no business jamming with us on a Thursday night when he’s going on tour the next day but he comes. He does it because it’s grassroots and it’s where we keep this art form alive.”
Tonight, the Jam Session is excited to bring in special guest James Campagnola on the tenor saxophone.
“He’s one of the most sought after musicians in New York City,” says Brondal. “He plays every single note as if he is going to die tomorrow. It’s gut-wrenching, authentic, and very primal.”
Brondal is confident that Campagnola’s presence tonight will take everyone to a new level. Playing with a “superstar” doesn’t intimidate the other musicians; it inspires them.
“It affects everybody’s playing,” he says. “You can do extraordinary things partly because of his good energy. You play not only better, but you play with intent. Everyone is listening.”
The special guest series is helping to create more of those moments when the audience stops, and even the wine seems to pause mid-pour.
“Any authentic, genuine artist,” says Brondal, “when their pouring their love into what they’re doing live in front of you, it’s very powerful. You see it in a lot in jazz. People don’t play it for the money or the prestige, but for the love of it, and love is a powerful thing.”