~ It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing ~
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Tom Amend has been in a band since he was 6 years old, playing piano for his dad’s yacht rock cover band (when his hands were just big enough to reach a few chords) up until 2019 when he stepped down as the Burroughs’ keyboardist of many years. Now at 26, he’s making his mark in the Denver jazz scene as one of Colorado’s best pianists, playing one-off shows every other night with a constantly rotating collection of musicians. He gave up that decades-old band consistency in the spirit of a music that defines him at his core.
“It’s the freedom of everything – the spaces, the sound, the tunes… [jazz] is a free form of music. It’s cliche, but it’s truly why I love it,” Amend tells BandWagon.
As a musician who loves to improvise, that freedom is addicting. The ever-changing environments opened up opportunities to play with some larger names like prominent jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton, who played on Amend’s debut album.
But even as a regularly-billed player at Denver clubs, Amend sometimes misses being a part of a band, building relationships and momentum as a group instead of as an individual. That’s why he wrote and recorded his newest album, Heliotrope, featuring an eight-piece jazz ensemble of his best friends, called the Tom Amend Octet. He refers to them as the “little big band,” and you can hear that description all over Heliotrope: five-part horn lines intermixed with a rhythm section emulate a big band style, but in a chamber setting. The octet brings him fond memories of the educational jazz ensembles he joined in high school and at the University of Northern Colorado.
“I wanted a chance to get my friends [together] and play on the same record,” Amend says, “since we’ve never all played on the same gig.”
Amend admits it’s a weird time to try to bring a larger jazz ensemble to Colorado’s live jazz scene, especially with live shows still practicing social distancing measures, but he’s hopeful of the octet becoming more of a band, as opposed to a one-off gig.
Developing the band relationship from an early age made him the musician he is now, and he recognizes the importance of sharing that coaching and experience with younger generations. Alongside teaching his own private students, and having a studio of young jazz pianists as an adjunct professor at the University of Northern Colorado, he mentors small ensembles at Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts (CCJA), a non-profit organization that mentors young musicians in the art of jazz music. In each of these scenarios, Amend teaches the ensembles and individuals how to adapt to their settings, very much like he does.
“One of my combos didn’t have a bass player, so we’re doing an organ-trio setting,” said Amend, proving that improvisation can be more than just choosing which notes to play.
Programs like the ones he now directs are what inspired Amend to chase after music in the first place, and whether returning to his roots or finding new musical spaces, he is excited for whatever scenarios life tosses his way – so long as a little improvisation is involved.