The Alpha Schoolmarm Orchestra's variation on symphonic music is exhilaratingly modern
George L. Blosser
When Chad Aman was a little kid, his parents, both professional musicians, ran a music school out of the family's basement. At three years old, he started learning piano, eager to emulate some of the sounds he heard wafting up through the house at all hours of the day and night. "One of my earliest memories is of hearing Tchaikovsky on the piano," says the affable Aman. "We were just absolutely inundated with music. I remember doing Sunday speed drills with my Dad. My sister got into it, and I was like, 'I'm not gonna let her beat me.' My brother and I would have competitions, too. That's what we did for fun. And we all got better."
A songwriter, arranger and session man who can play anything, Aman has performed and recorded with Denver artists big and small, including the String Cheese Incident, Todd Park Mohr and Cocktail Revolution, which he co-founded. His improvisational jazz combo, the Heavies, boasts what is arguably the most solid jazz line-up in town, with vocalist Venus Cruz, bassist Artie Moore, drummer Tony Black and the mighty Hugh Ragin on trumpet. Name a band that's graced the marquee at Herman's Hideaway over the past fifteen years: Aman's probably played with them.
These days, Aman's biggest joy comes in the form of a fourteen-person ensemble called the Alpha Schoolmarm Orchestra, which marries the skanking vibrancy of early Jamaican music with traditional classical instrumentation, including full string and brass sections. It's a bold concept that, in lesser hands, might succeed mainly as a novelty. With Aman as maestro, the Alpha Schoolmarm Orchestra is spectacle for the eyes as well as the ears -- an exhilaratingly modern variation on symphonic music. And while the players are free to improvise and play with the form, the ASO is Aman's well-tended baby. He composes the arrangements, writes the scores and serves as conductor.
"A lot of times I'm directing with my left hand, soloing on the keyboard with my right, and showing the meter, the temp, with my feet," he says. "Sometimes it feels like I have another head that kind of keeps watch of things, helps to make those six or seven decisions in real time that are happening every moment. If I stop to think about it, it all falls. It's really like a house of cards."
The Alpha Schoolmarm Orchestra formed last December as a kind of musical art project. Aman assembled the players -- including current and former members of Slim Cessna's Auto Club, DeVotchKa, Judge Roughneck, Erica Brown Band, the Motet and others -- for a one-off New Year's Eve gig at the Thin Man. The crowd went wild, and Aman realized he had something special. Covering everything from Rossini to Lady Gaga, the music is sophisticated but totally accessible, bathing the listener in the artful bombast of strings, brass and drums. "The hardest part about the ASO is keeping people out of the band," Aman says, laughing.
"Everybody wants to play with us, because it's just so fun. We're taking the absolute oldest music and putting it with the absolute newest. It's truly music for everybody. Eventually, I want to reach kids, to show them that it's cool to play cello, or trumpet, or violin. I've always wanted a platform that would help answer the question, 'So, you mean I can play the flute and still be cool?' This band helps answer that question."