There’s a new band in town, and they’re doing something a little different. Meet the Alpha Schoolmarm Orchestra, a 13-piece group including strings, horns and a full rhythm section. It’s a brainchild of Eric Alstead (tubaist/owner of the Thin Man tavern in Denver) and Chad Aman (also of Cocktail Revolution, Projex fame). They play ska the way a full orchestra would, but conductor Aman also “plays” the band. Here, he talks about improvising from the pulpit, the upcoming Cow Town Jazz and Media Festival and the studied history of ska as an art form.
French Davis: What is ASO?
Chad Aman: It’s the 13-piece “Alpha Schoolmarm Orchestra,” based on early ’60s Jamaican ska music. I’m the conductor/arranger of the group. Our show takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of ska-inspired arrangements of standards (from Lady Gaga to Rossini) to innovative orchestral originals.
FD: What makes ASO different from other large ensembles?
CA: ASO is the only large ska-based ensemble in this part of the country. Their performances are a unique spectacle combining original orchestral pieces with classical, popular and ska musical arrangements. And one of the most original aspects of ASO is the way I improvise with the group, utilizing the orchestra sections and players as instruments while we’re playing through an arrangement. We communicate throughout a performance in ways that really break down walls and create something unique for every single show.
FD: Tell us about some of the players in the group. Who are they and what are their backgrounds?
CA: The players range from rock-stars to bar owners, writers to teachers. There’s Jon Hegel, sax player from Judge Roughneck and Cocktail Revolution; Chris Barron of MiloSofia fame; Phil Jones, who plays with neo funk revivalists The Messers; Ricky Rodriguez, who plays with the Erica Brown band; and a bunch more. Check out our site for the full run-down: alphaschoolmarmorchestra.com
FD: What’s the reception been like, in terms of fans?
CA: Overwhelming. People love this new musical experience because it is so appealing to fans of all ages. Parents are thrilled to bring their kids to expose them to an orchestral experience, music fans are inspired by the original approach and the musicians in the crowd appreciate the musical feat happening in front of their eyes. Oh yeah, and there’s lots and lots of dancing and we wear really cool outfits.
FD: So, you do the arranging? How does that happen?
CA: Yeah, I handle all of the writing and arranging, the original pieces, special arrangements and an array of “melodic and rhythmic motifs.” We plan each show with a rehearsed structure and theme that kind of sets up the orchestra as an instrument itself, for me to improvise through a single instrument, section or rhythm pattern during the live performance. It’s heady, and takes a tremendous amount of communication with the group and each individual performer. I’m truly blessed to be working with all these amazing talents, that we can pull this kind of thing off.
FD: What is the Cow Town Jazz fest? Tell me all about that.
CA: This year will be the second annual Cow Town Jazz Fest. The festival brings together a roster of beloved jazz musicians whom are the backbone of the now not so “cow town-y” Denver music scene. This year we are partnering with DenverMind Media to throw some artists into the mix, highlighted by an Artisan flea market, Spontaneous Creativity Challenges and likely a petting zoo.
ASO headlines the all-ages Cow Town Jazz and Media Fest, Oct. 5-6, (ASO plays on Oct. 6) at The Oriental Theater, 4335 W. 44th Ave., 720.420.0030 or alphaschoolmarmorchestra.com