Size matters

Sacramento Jazz Orchestra brings their sound to clubs, camps, schools

Makin’ jazz.

Makin’ jazz.

Catch the Sacramento Jazz Orchestra Sunday, August 29, from 5 to 8 p.m. at JB’s Lounge, Red Lion Hotel, 1401 Arden Way. For reservations call (916) 723-5517. For more information, go to

JB’s Lounge

1401 Arden Way
Sacramento, CA 95815

(916) 922-8041

It must have seemed like a crazy idea.

Playing jazz, for all its rewards, has always been a tough dollar. Playing big-band jazz, which requires more players, more rehearsal time and more money, is even tougher. The idea of launching a full-size, professional-level big band in Sacramento, right into the teeth of the worst economy since the Great Depression, must have seemed like madness when local musician/educators Joe Mazzaferro, Steve Roach, Sam Griffith and Cory Cunningham started tossing it around last year.

And yet it’s worked. A series of phone calls, meetings and rehearsals quickly brought the band together, and its February 28 debut brought an overflow audience to JB’s Lounge. Dubbed the Sacramento Jazz Orchestra, the 18-piece band sounded fantastic on charts as varied as traditional big-band swing, Latin jazz and SJO members’ tunes composed for the occasion. Now, the SJO has announced a full season of seven concerts, beginning with a return to JB’s on August 29.

For Mazzaferro, the group’s music director, it’s been more than worth the effort.

“Playing in a group like this is really rewarding,” he said. “It’s certainly easier just to get together with three or four people, pick a few tunes and just make music. But when you’re playing as part of trumpet section with three or four other people, and that section is part of something larger where you have brass, reeds and a rhythm section all coming together, it’s a different kind of kick.”

Part of that kick comes from employing the high level of musicianship required to blend into a section and execute charts that typically include highly syncopated, interlocking riffs and dense harmonies. But for composers, large ensembles offer the added satisfaction of being able to add backgrounds, counterpoint, and “shouts” or soli that showcase different sections of the band, and generally having more control of the overall shape of the performance, Mazzaferro said. (Several of the SJO members are composers, and the August 29 performance is likely to feature two of Mazzaferro’s arrangements of Chick Corea compositions, as well as works by pianist Joe Gilman and trumpeter Steve Roach.)

Most important, big bands offer a king-size payoff for listeners. Simply put, the power, sophistication and excitement of a full-size jazz orchestra is a sound unlike any other, and something that everyone with an interest in great American music should experience. Fortunately, the SJO has plans to bring that sound not only to clubs such as JB’s, where aficionados are bound to show up in force, but also to where it’s needed most: local schools.

Mazzaferro said that part of the goal in forming the SJO was to “teach this music, and teach it in the right way,” in order to sow the seeds for the next generation of players, fans and educators. All of the SJO members teach, and many hold prominent positions in local universities, colleges and school districts. For example, trumpeter Steve Roach is director of jazz studies at Sacramento State, pianist Joe Gilman teaches at American River College and is music director of the educational oriented Capital Jazz Project, and saxophonist Josh Murray and trumpeter Max Kiesner teach in the acclaimed jazz program at Rio Americano High School. (The lineup for August 29 also includes saxophonists Patrick Langham, Jeff Alkire, Greg D’Augelli and Reagan Branch; trombonists Mike Souliere, Phil Tulga, Cory Cunningham and Tony Portela; trumpeters Steve Russo and Clyde Quick; guitarist Steve Homan; bassist Matt Robinson; and drummer Rick Lotter.)

“Our goal in the short term is just to play more gigs and get our name out there,” he said. “But in the long term, we are working on some educational endeavors—a summer jazz camp, some school visits where we would play and do some clinics. Overall, our goal is to bring more of an awareness of jazz in Sacramento, and hopefully we can help the jazz community grow stronger.”