It starts slowly, with the tinkle of a few piano keys, the strum of the bass, the first cry of the trumpet.
Within seconds though, a rich riot of sound pours forth, as the five University of Virginia faculty members in the Free Bridge Quintet launch into the lively jazz that has made the band a local institution.
It seems effortless, and perhaps it should; they have had 20 years to practice. The five members – saxophonist Jeff Decker, drummer Robert Jospé, bassist Peter Spaar, trumpeter John D’earth and pianist Butch Taylor – are celebrating their 20th anniversary this fall with a concert, 20 Years of Jazz at UVA, on Saturday.
In the two decades they have been playing together, the quintet has become a prominent part of not only the UVA community, but also the Charlottesville and Central Virginia jazz scene. They are renowned for their tributes to famed jazz musicians like Duke Ellington Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker, and for their own original music.
We joined one of their rehearsals as they prepared for the upcoming show. Take a look.
From left to right, Jeff Decker, Peter Spaar, Robert Jospé, Butch Taylor and John D’earth.
Gary Funston, a board member of the Charlottesville Jazz Society, said the quintet and its members were “individually and collectively ingrained into the fabric of the Charlottesville music community.”
“It seems as if the Free Bridge Quintet has been here forever, not just a mere 20 years,” Funston said. “Their numerous concerts in Old Cabell Hall, including collaborations with both local and nationally known musicians, have provided many highlights for jazz fans in our area. I’m looking forward to the next 20.”
English professor Rita Dove called them “five quintessential musicians who know their stuff.”
“Whenever I hear the Free Bridge Quintet, I feel like I’ve come home,” she said.
The group started in 1997, when Spaar, pictured above center, proposed a chamber music concert put on by a jazz group.
“The person he proposed it to thought he was kidding,” because the two types of music were considered so different, D’earth recalled, laughing. Still, Spaar didn’t let go of the idea, and brought his colleagues in the McIntire Department of Music on board.
The name came from D’earth’s wife, the late Dawn Thompson, a former voice instructor at UVA who died in August after a long battle with cancer.
“We were stumped over the name,” D’earth recalled. “I talked to Dawn about it, and immediately she said, ‘Free Bridge Quintet.’”
She got the idea from Free Bridge, one of two bridges that used to be the main routes into 19th-century Charlottesville. As tolls mounted in other areas, Free Bridge, located in what is now the Pantops area, was true to its name.
Each member of the quintet is an accomplished musician in his own right. Taylor, shown above, was a keyboardist and vocalist with Dave Matthews Band from 1997 to 2008. He is currently a professor of jazz piano and the lead producer, composer and engineer at Ravensworth Studios in Scottsville.
John D’earth, the director of jazz performance at UVA and the leader of UVA’s student jazz ensemble, also has a connection to Dave Matthews Band. D’earth, who has performed nationally and internationally for decades, mentored a young Matthews as he emerged on the music scene and has written music for the group, which he occasionally joins onstage. Today, D’earth has hundreds of compositions to his name and performs regularly in Charlottesville and elsewhere.
Jospé, above left, has released numerous albums and performs with several regional jazz groups. He is also the creator of The World Beat Workshop, an interactive musical education program presented to thousands of students annually.
Spaar, pictured at right, performs with both the Charlottesville Symphony at UVA and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, as well as playing numerous freelance gigs as a jazz and classical bassist.
Decker, the quintet’s saxophonist, has been a part of multiple jazz albums as a composer and a performer. He is also a UVA alumnus, earning a master’s degree in history in 1991 after writing his thesis on race relations in the jazz community.
“Because we are all doing things on our own, we always bring in new ideas, even after 20 years,” Decker said. “It’s such a great creative outlet, playing with the top pros around.”
Spaar noted that, despite two decades of playing a concert each semester, they always create fresh material for each show.
“One of my favorite things about this group is that we can do a variety of jazz styles,” he said. “We’ve done early jazz, bebop, contemporary jazz, even Afropop.”
For their 20th-anniversary concert, the group will perform some of their favorite original compositions from their two decades of playing together, while also sharing some new music they have been working on.
The concert, 20 Years of Jazz at UVA, is this Saturday in Old Cabell Hall at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the UVA Arts box office. They are free for UVA students who reserve in advance, $5 for students at the door, $13 for UVA faculty and staff, and $15 for general admission. Students who are under 18 can attend for free.