Rhode Island’s big-band tradition began 49 years ago, one year later than the Monday-night series that Thad Jones and Mel Lewis started at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Drummer Duke Belaire inaugurated it in 1967 at the Cobblestone Tavern in East Providence, before settling in at nearby Bovi’s Tavern in 1969. On any given night in the vintage Belaire era, the band might have included saxophonists Greg Abate, Ted Casher, Dick Johnson and Art Pelosi, trombonist Hal Crook, pianist Mike Renzi and a young trumpeter named John Allmark. In 1999, Belaire passed the musical baton to Allmark, whose own fine Jazz Orchestra had been playing in various area venues since 1991.
In an impressive feat of musical longevity, Bovi’s was the home of Monday-night jazz for 48 years. That ended in late 2015, when the neighborhood bar closed its doors for good.
In January of this year, the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra moved about seven miles to the Met Cafe, a live music emporium in Pawtucket. It was a splendid move. The new venue is larger, feels much roomier and has top-notch sound and lighting systems; these attributes compensate for the coziness that Bovi’s afforded the band and its loyal fans.
Allmark, who moved to Rhode Island from his native Manchester, England, at age 15 primarily to study jazz, is an extraordinary player and arranger for brass sections. Stylistically, he draws mostly from the sound of the fiery early-through-mid-career Freddie Hubbard. Among his many credits, he has toured with Liza Minnelli and the Artie Shaw Orchestra under the direction of Dick Johnson.
His big band features many of the finest jazz players from throughout southern New England, particularly from the Providence and Boston areas. Its infrequent special guests have included saxophonists Nick Brignola and Lanny Morgan, trumpeter Bobby Shew and pop/R&B singer Jeffrey Osborne. Jeffrey’s oldest brother, Clay Osborne, sang with the big band regularly until his death 10 years ago.
The John Allmark Jazz Orchestra’s personnel shifts a bit from week to week, depending on which musicians are available. The core players include tenor saxophonists Tucker Antell or Bill Vint and Jerry Vejmola; alto saxophonist Bob Bowlby (a Buddy Rich band alumnus who is in great demand with touring musicals); baritone saxophonists Brendan Carniaux or Austin Yancey; trombonists Jeff Hoyer, Artie Montanaro and Angel Subaro; and trumpeters Ross Hill, Yuri Munoz and Doug Olsen. The rhythm section includes bassist Bryan Rizzuto, drummer Vinny Pagano, and Rusty Hughes or Jiri Nedoma on keyboard.
Allmark’s huge book includes big-band arrangements of compositions by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Dizzy Gillespie, George Gershwin, Horace Silver, Don Menza, Freddie Hubbard, Oliver Nelson, John Coltrane and Clifford Brown, among others.
Around 9 p.m. each Monday, Bowlby proclaims on Facebook that “the hour of jazz is upon us!” Within seconds, Allmark and company dig into the band’s theme song, Don Schamber’s powerful arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Soon.”
On one recent Monday, Allmark treated listeners to a bit of Ellington and Strayhorn, some Freddie Hubbard material and a few other gems. My clear favorite was the band’s lush take on trumpeter Tom Harrell’s gorgeous composition “Sail Away.”