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Cohoes, NY
September 1, 2010

by J Hunter

I went to a wake last Wednesday night. We didn’t call it a funeral because the loved one hadn’t gone yet, but we couldn’t call it a “death watch”, either, because the time of passing was already set: By Friday morning, Bread & Jam Café would be part of a Capital Region club history that had already claimed the Lark Tavern and Revolution Hall earlier in the year. Unlike those places, though, Bread & Jam’s demise came with enough notice that the jazz community could give the area’s coolest caffeine dispenser a decent send-off.

It wasn’t anything structured, but that dovetailed with the informal atmosphere that topped a laundry list of reasons why Sal Prizio’s joint was such a warm, inviting place. Thanks to a flurry of phone calls by Joe Barna, there would be one more jam session at the club that had been bringing jazz to Cohoes for the better part of two years. The night would have been perfect if the couches had been in front of the stage, as they were at Bread & Jam’s beginning. Of course, if the tables had been removed, there wouldn’t have been a place for the laptop and video egg that captured the monstrous musicians that came out to play.

Depending on who you talked to, the group that kicked things off was either called “Friends of Sal” or “Rusty Bucket & the Dirty Spoons.” Either way, there’s no way you can argue with a front line that boasts Jeff Nania on alto, Jeremy Gold on tenor, and Dylan Canterbury on a borrowed cornet. (A friend of his had bought the horn a few days earlier, and Canterbury’s reaction upon hearing the news was, “May I play it, please?!”) Mark Capon wasn’t technically on the front line, as he did all his work from a chair at the side of the stage. YouTube viewers may not get to see his face, but they will hear some truly classic hollow-body guitar that makes a terrific contrast to the brass and reeds. Barna was back behind his kit, eyes bright as searchlights as he laid the foundation with Lou Smaldone.

Everybody’s favorite thunder-drummer was a big part of the musical mix Prizio served with coffee, cookies, and some damn fine chili. Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes was holding a drop party for their second disc The Next Phase when I made my first visit to Bread & Jam two years before. Back then the group was basically Benedict backed by the Joe Barna/Lee Russo Group, with Julia Donnarumma occasionally adding enticing vocals. That show was outstanding, ending with an impromptu jam session featuring Steve Lambert’s killer trumpet. But the headline for me was Bread & Jam itself: I dug the people, I dug the sightlines, I dug the décor, and I dug the relaxed, come-as-you-are vibe that Starbucks tries (and fails) to simulate. I was on my fourth or fifth iced coffee when I declared, “If I lived in Cohoes, you’d find me here every afternoon!”

Unfortunately, I didn’t get there every afternoon, and I missed the periodic jam sessions Barna organized there in the following months. But I did catch most of the shows Barna used to develop his group concept Sketches of Influence; that arc culminated with the bodacious late-Spring concert where Sketches’ first disc was recorded. (THIS JUST IN: We get to hear that disc this December!) The crowd was so thick that night, you needed a crowbar and a tear-gas grenade just to get Standing Room. Alas, that couldn’t be said for Ralph Lalama’s two-night stand a few months later. Despite the poor attendance, the show was an eye-opener – not only because Lalama, Barna and Smaldone played jaw-dropping sax-trio jazz, but because it showed Bread & Jam could be more than just a place for the locals to get their ya-ya’s out. With the right booking and the right promotion, it could have been outstanding. And if wishes were shellfish, we could throw a pretty awesome clambake.

The last jam started a little rough as the sextet got used to each other, but the solos were on point right from the jump. By the time the group rolled into “A Night in Tunisia”, they had found a communal groove to go with the blistering leads everybody was serving up. I’m beginning to think Canterbury could take over a room if he played a kazoo through a Dixie cup, but for once, he wasn’t the only roaring young lion in the house: Gold’s tenor buzzed and sizzled with an unassailable presence, and Nania made his black-and-gold alto jump on command. When Canterbury walked offstage to end his solo on “All Blues”, Nania walked on playing the same figure, making it his own in about two seconds flat.

The blossoming of this generation of players makes me smile at the prospects of the Capital Region jazz scene; the only thing hindering that process is the diminishing number of area stages, and the loss of Bread & Jam Café makes a bad situation lousy. Whenever film critic Joe Bob Briggs reported the death of another drive-in movie theater, he accompanied the news with the Cold War admonition, “Without eternal vigilance, it can happen here!” I can relate.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.