Sitting In with The Be-Sides

My whole life I’ve been dealing with a slight but constant disappointment in the quality of life after dark in most cities and towns. Outside of a handful of big cities, things are far too sleepy after a certain hour, and the only places that stay open late are mostly useful if you happen to be in the mood to start a fistfight with an HVAC tech over college football allegiances.

Imagine my surprise, then, when after a big, late-ish French dinner in Richmond, Virgina, my girlfriend and I walked a few doors down and heard strains of live jazz emanating from a storefront that, to the best of my knowledge, had been occupied for a year or two by a sort of bizarre looking escape room/art installation. We walked by and it took us a moment to realize that the music wasn’t pre-recorded. We doubled back, paid a modest cover charge, and went inside.

Once we settled in, we were treated to a lovely set by the Be-Sides (a play on B-sides), featuring a surprising number of originals, the rare jazz club originals you actually might want to hear again. The standards, too, were well done, reverent to the original material but not boring.

The Be-Sides have a standing Sunday night gig, and we’ve made it something of a habit. Sometimes it kicks off a late night at one of the handful of bars that stays open till two on a Sunday, other nights it’s a restful end to the week, but either way it’s become a fixture of our week if we’re in town.

Having seen these guys play a few times, I started to get curious. Who were they? How did they start playing together? Generally speaking, what’s their deal? So I asked one evening, and bassist Jack Byrnes was kind enough to sit down and tell me a little bit more about the band, their approach to music, and their plans for the future. Additionally, all of the guys chimed in with some recommendations for music to get listeners through the gloomy winter months.

At the start of our conversation, I figured that scraping together jazz musicians and finding a place to play might have been an uphill battle. In fact, their genesis was a lot more serendipitous than I’d expected it to be. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the genesis of the Be-Sides is no different, springing as they did from a milieu established by other musicians who’d been established in the area for quite some time.

“I moved to Richmond in September of 2022 after doing a lot of traveling” said Byrnes. “I was searching out live music and a jazz scene in Richmond. The scene in Richmond is pretty underground, usually events spread through word of mouth. [Eventually] I came across Reveler, this crazy looking place with golden skeletons out front and wild decorations inside. It’s changed a lot since I’ve been hanging there.”

“But they had a poster for a jazz jam on Sundays held by the great Michael Hawkins. Mike Hawkins and his band have been running a session for years... They just relocated to Reveler about when I moved to Richmond. I was really impressed with some of the players that would show up every week. Dan [on Alto Sax], Rahib [on Guitar/synth guitar] and I were always wanting the session to go on later into the night, but Mike Hawkins teaches in the mornings. So at 9pm, we offered to keep the session going till 11pm. Stephan [drums] is the most working musician I know, he’s so great we hired him to play with us and he’s been an integral part of our sound.”

At the risk of editorializing unduly, I’d like to take a moment as the author of this piece to point out that the Be-Sides were born of a desire to keep the party going, and there’s something wonderful about that. In a post-pandemic age in which people do less than ever outside of the house and seem to be going to bed earlier and earlier, this decision, slightly decadent, to keep playing and keep the jam going a little longer, is a modestly defiant one that speaks succinctly to the joy of music.

I figured going into our conversation that it might have been hard to find musicians for a band or a space to play, but Jack assures me that this was not in fact the case.

“Richmond’s jazz scene is thriving under the radar. There are so many amazing players hanging around, playing lots of gigs and being extremely creative. I’m consistently surprised at how many groups and musicians are thriving in this town. One of the first bands to play at Reveler before Be-Sides existed was the Rahib Amin Quartet. Rahib has been in Richmond a long time and hired me and Stephan to play an evening with him. Having a jazz group with a specified consistent lineup is kind of unusual due to the nature of being a ‘working musician’. The Be-Sides really are just some friends who met and played together at the session, before we were added to the bill at Reveler. It’s turned into something special and exciting. We’ve created a unique dynamic and sound for this specific lineup of musicians. Very naturalistic but very experimental as well. I’m very pleased we have this weekly spot to keep playing and experimenting.”

And getting the gig?

“It was actually the easiest gig to get. We were offered a weekly spot at Reveler before we had a name for our group. Which by the way, is B-sides spelled as Be-sides. We turn the record over from the Mike Hawkins Jam session, and we are often on call for those guys as backup players. And it’s a good answer for staying out.”

So they got together and they’ve got a standing gig, but an intrepid reader may still be wondering if these guys are any good? Rest assured, they are. Their sound (and I write this understanding that, as the saying goes, writing about music can be akin to dancing about architecture) in general owes a debt to the sounds and innovations of the sixties, but is not strictly hidebound to this era. In performances, the group plays in a style informed by a range of influences and approaches. That’s not for a lack of focus; rather, the band’s approach to performance allows each member to put a finger on the scale and shape the nature of a piece.

“The cool thing about this group is the total freedom that each player has to change the sound. In lots of groups, the bandleader or the soloist has agency over the direction of the music. We let each player have a greater precedence in the musical direction at every moment. Groups like Miles Davis’ 60’s quintet and Ornette Coleman’s later groups were famous for this. Individually we all have our musical vocabulary we pull from, but as a group, we follow in the tradition of some of the musical concepts introduced to jazz and the Avant Garde in the mid 1960’s.”

Playing live, ample time is usually given for each musician to take a solo, the length of which is sufficient to allow for exploration of a melodic idea or theme, but not so long as to grow indulgent. The quartet feels united, but at the same time a fun game of hot potato gets played, as each musician is allowed a significant opportunity to contribute something distinct to the piece. Moments of group togetherness and individual expression weave a tapestry that can at once be focused on or relaxed to.

So, a solid band with a unique voice materialized almost out of nowhere. It’s a great kickoff, and the group is already thinking about the future.

“Soon, we’re headed into the studio to record our original music and some of our favorite arrangements. We have a lot of ideas we’re gonna put down on record. We also have plans to feature some special musical guests. It’s always exciting to have big plans but we’re really dedicated to the exploration of our sound first. As long as we have an outlet to keep exploring these musical avenues with each other, it’ll be an exciting time. And if people come and hear it and are excited by it too, all the better.”

Whatever the future holds for the Be-Sides, it’ll be exciting. These guys are breathing new life into a storied old genre and making it accessible in a city that hasn’t always had a lot of opportunities for jazz appreciation. While the circumstances of their formation were certainly serendipitous, their story is proof that, in a lot of cases, life is about showing up, being present, and letting the rest fall into place.