Field Notes and Fixations: Sioux Falls’ JAS Quintet Set to Release Debut Album

By Thomas Hentges

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While not being recognized as a mecca for jazz music, and reasonably so, South Dakota has still found itself home to several jazz musicians and enthusiasts for several decades. For the past 25 years the Sioux Falls Jazz and Blues Society has played host to the lively, extremely popular, and well-attended event in JazzFest at Yankton Trail Park in Sioux Falls. Westward, Deadwood Jam will occasionally also include appearances by a jazz-leaning performers. However, a sustained interest in live jazz has seemingly never fully taken flight in our area.

An ensemble made up of familiar faces amongst the Sioux Falls jazz crowd, the JAS Quintet is steadfast on continuing to embellish the interest in jazz music in South Dakota and beyond. This group has spent the last couple years presenting enthusiastic audiences with three distinct programs, each highlighting a jazz heavyweight’s catalog of work (Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and most recently, Duke Ellington). After exploring the spirit and interplay of the group through performing the tunes of some of jazz’s forefathers, the quintet is stepping out on their own with a recorded collection of original tunes and arrangements, which make up their debut album, Leap Year Baby, set for an early 2017 release.

I recently had the opportunity to toss a few questions at JAS Quintet members Andrew Reinartz (bass), Joel Shotwell (sax) and Jim Speirs (trumpet) about the group’s dynamic, jazz in our community and their debut release.

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(submitted image)

TH: This ensemble of musicians has been playing together in different groups and incarnations for many years at this point. Why did you decide now was the time to record and release an album?

Andrew:  “While we’ve all played together in various bands, I think that this was the particular combination to express some of the ideas a lot of us had for some original music. When our drummer, Dan Heier, moved back to town, the five of us really clicked in an exciting way. And all of us actually lived in the same town, which made working through ideas together way more feasible.”

“We all trust each other musically, and are willing and able to put time in to flesh out ideas and take things in new directions. Improvised music can be really…for lack of a better term…vulnerable. You really put yourself out there every single time you take a solo, so you need people you trust to come with you, push back, whatever the moment needs.”

Jim:  “When something like this comes together, you know you have something to say as a band and you want to capture it for others to hear. There’s nothing that compares to a live experience as improvised music takes on dimension that is best felt when you share it in real time with the band, but we decided it was worth recording on an album.”

TH: What should we expect from this collection of songs?

Joel:  “For this collection of songs, you can expect variety. Seven of the nine songs are original and were written by our pianist Jeff Paul, bassist Andrew Reinartz and myself. We did one standard “Alone Together,” but in a different way than most people do it. We took the arrangement from a friend, Nate Jorgensen. We also did an arrangement that Andrew did of a Radiohead tune. The original tunes are all unique and different from each other. Our engineer Dalton Coffey took that approach while mixing it as well with each song being mixed according to its feel.” 

Andrew: “It’s an instrumental album from a jazz tradition, but really a wide variety of tunes. We go from straight-ahead minor blues tunes to funk, to a tune based on a Gregorian chant form. We played everything live, at the same time in the same room with no overdubs and only something like two edits on the whole album. We then ginned it up a bit with modern recording techniques and tastes, but it still sounds like an acoustic band making music together.”

TH: Over the years, has any member evolved as the “leader” or “director” of this project?

Andrew:  “I really think this band is truly a group effort. I think Joel really spearheaded the start of the project by bringing some of the first compositions to the table, but we really all have a say, both musically and operationally. We have a variety of musical interests or focuses, many outside of jazz, but all come from some portion of a tradition of improvised music rooted often in traditional jazz idioms. Each composer gets a bit of veto power when they bring a tune, but even then almost all the tunes have morphed significantly from their initial idea after the rest of the group has gotten hold of it.

Jim: “We work hard to keep this as a collective. What you hear when we play is the voice of the band, not any one person.”

TH: While jazz is appreciated globally, some might argue that our area is a bit of a dead zone for this truly American art form. What would be your rebuttal to such an accusation?

Jim:I think in many ways, live music in general has taken a hit lately. Folks seem less interested in that experience. Maybe because we’re surrounded 24/7 with music in some form and we have access to more music digitally now than ever before. I think that will change. People will miss the connection and communication that can only happen when you’re in the room with those performing. Jazz is still going through a transition from a ‘pop’ art form to fine art (this transition has been decades in the making). It’s weird to say ‘fine art’ in describing jazz, but what I mean is that it is no longer fueled by the popular music industry that is primarily focused on making money.”

Joel: “There is still great jazz music being made in this country, revolutionary jazz music even. As the world gets smaller so does the jazz world. As far as the art form goes, I think most musicians don’t see borders or think about things like that. We just communicate with whoever we can that shares the language and philosophy. “

Jim: “We have many talented jazz musicians in the region and I believe an audience base that will support their work. We just need to find the right venue that wants to be a home for the music. We had a great place, a real home, at Touch of Europe for nearly 20 years. That’s all we are missing right now.” 

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For more info on JAS Quintet, click here

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Meet Music Writer Thomas Hentges