Gathered around a wooden card table in the kitchen of Red Square, the Chronicles are in repose in a few folding chairs. The backdrop of metal countertops and lack of bystanders brings to mind a secret meeting in Goodfellas or The Sopranos. Trombonist Bryan Brudige and saxophonist Jeff Nania are still ruddy in the cheeks from blowing fire for the last hour but show no signs of fatigue. The rhythm section comprising Andrae Surgick on drums, Tyrone Hartsog on keyboards, Daniel Lawson on bass and Justin Henricks on guitar show no mark of exhaustion either. In fact, after working out the crowd in advance of headliner Turkuaz, they’re giddy. They haven’t played a show or rehearsed for a month while Brundige toured nationally with the Sunny Side of the Street Band. While a month of radio silence would leave most bands a little rusty, the Chronicles’ chops have not diminished in the least.
“I wasn’t even thinking about y’all for a month and a half,” jokes Surgick.
“I’ve been playing 1930s music, real quiet,” Brundige quips, pantomiming a muted trombone fill.
On the horizon is their gig opening for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center. Brundige, as if to focus the group for what’s to come, introduces the maxim, “Volume is not intensity,” an odd sentiment after having played at club volume and intensity not 15 minutes earlier; but, having played for crowds ranging from the New Hampshire Jazz Center to the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival backing rapper J-Live, the hip-hop-savvy jazz band have shown their ability to show up and hit hard or lay in the cut and whisper with a simple flip of the switch. Tonight they delivered a soul punch and the crowd felt it.
While many musicians, including Jason Panucci (AKA PJ Katz), Chris Carballeira, Kendra Jones and Phil Chow, have passed through the cell wall of the Chronicles and continue to float in and out, the core six-member group of Brundige, Nania, Hartsog, Lawson, Surgick and Henricks is itself a melding of musical traditions.
Brundige and Nania are both firmly rooted in the jazz tradition. Nania (a Metroland music critic), is the son of a trumpet player and has been digging through his father’s jazz vinyl since he was a teenager. The two met while attending Schenectady Community College, where Brundige’s “world shattered and was reformed as a musical one.” At that point he abandoned dreams of careers in theater and veterinary science to devote himself to music. It was also at this time that he and Nania started playing under the name Eponymous: Nanu Baluku Zombie Vanguard. That is the full band name; it has not been abridged in any way.
Hartsog, originally from Queens, brought the Brooklyn gospel sound with him to Albany in 2006. He met Lawson and Surgick shortly thereafter through church, playing in the gospel band together. Surgick has played drums in church since childhood and developed his deep pocket by memorizing an entire Earth, Wind, and Fire live album at his uncle’s behest.
Although he began with saxophone in middle school, Lawson picked up the bass in 8th grade and taught himself the instrument by studying soul greats James Jamerson and Nate Watts.
The youngest member of the band, Henricks, the son of Grateful Dead fans, was raised on Jerry but cut his chops on Soulive, adding licks from soul-jazz greats Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. Brundige describes the wunderkind’s style as “[Soulive’s Eric] Krasno meets Jerry, with a diminished lick.”
“Groove for Nola,” the second cut from the Chronicles’ self-titled debut record, best represents their live set. Recorded in a single take with light overdubs, it is a bona fide Bourbon Street bounce. The take that appears on the album was chosen for Hartsog’s unhinged organ solo. At their record release party in December, it would not have been a stretch to imagine the crowd filing out the door of the Bayou Café and following Henrick’s auto-wah finger-flaying or Brundige’s brassy trombone slides down Pearl Street for a second-line.
But The Chronicles is a much more manicured affair than “Groove for Nola” betrays. “Rain Drops,” an epic eight-minute progressive jazz-and-R&B odyssey composed by trumpeter Phil Chow, includes a one-woman gospel choir of layered vocals by Kendra Jones. The song was conceived when the band were using Andrae Surgick’s recording studio in Colonie, where Jones was also a regular. After leaving the track in the studio, the band returned to find Jones’ vocal layered on top. This lagniappe led Jones to a stint with the band in 2011 and 2012. She also adds her Erykah Badu-infused vocal touch to “I Wanna Sing” and “Music Comes Alive.”
The record’s opening track, “Purple Diesel,” a composition by Nania, opens with 10 seconds of what sounds like a radio scanning the stations, until it lands on the song’s burly horn intro. It blazes through sections of complex meter, rides a Maceo Parker groove on the one, and takes the listener through whisper/scream dynamic shifts. It is this malleable and syncretic blend of the whole soulful-music continuum that makes the Chronicles the vanguard of Albany’s present jazz scene.
Indeed, no area band seem to draw a more diverse crowd, from the gospel community to Rye Breaders and all walks of life in between, and this Januray show at Red Square finds them out in full force.
Toward the end of the Chronicles’ set, Henricks coyly picks a repeating figure. It isn’t until Hartsog sings, “Welcome to your life/There’s no turning back,” that it dawns on the audience that they’re hearing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” As Nania’s solo on the ’80s-appropriate alto saxophone is beginning to plateau, Hartsog elevates the song, repeating, “There is a ruler” with melisma and harmonizing with the horns. What began as a cheeky ’80s cover becomes a contemporary R&B tune with all of the spiritual gravitas of Sunday service.
“I’m not just playing in this band just to play in a band,” says Hartsog, “or the accolades. I’m playing in the band to spread a message through what I know best, which is church.”
Brundige and the rest of the band agree, that this is one of the Chronicles’ greatest strengths. No person is forced into a role, nor are they asked to compromise their style or beliefs. They live the experience that they emote musically and they are able to weave their own narratives seamlessly with one another. Even when taking on a Tears for Fears song, they are also commenting on it, making it their own, and proving their versatility.
“One year we won Best Hip-Hop,” Surgick boasts, referring to the Chronicles’ previous Metroland accolades, “The next we won Best Jazz. What’s next?”
It boils down to chops, and the Chronicles have chops. With the notes underneath their fingers and the breath in their lungs, they can tackle any tune and play any venue. They are fluent of soul and ready to spread the gospel.