The Rainey Day Quartet gets downtown grooving

The Rainey Day Quartet sets up for an evening of groovy summer jazz at The Garage on Friday. Photo by Martyn Kyle. The Rainey Day Quartet sets up for an evening of groovy summer jazz at The Garage on Friday. Photo by Martyn Kyle.

If you’ve been on the Downtown Mall this summer, you’ve likely seen four young musicians set up in front of Kilwin’s, beside a white board that reads “Help Us Pay For College” propped in a guitar case with a shallow sea of coins and crumpled bills pooling at its base.

The Rainey Day Quartet formed just over a month ago, but the band is already turning heads and swiveling hips with its approach to jazz music.

Home on summer break from Carnegie Mellon University, Albemarle High School graduate Sam Rainey was eager to busk on the mall and make a few bucks while doing what he loves—playing jazz. But jazz is more fun with a band, so he rang up Jack Treece, an AHS rising senior, to join him on upright bass (the backbone of a jazz quartet), and recent AHS graduate Ben Eisenberg to round out the rhythm section on drums. Rainey tapped another AHS jazz band alumnus and current James Madison University student, saxophonist Anthony Hoang, as the quartet’s soloist.

It’s a slightly unusual combination, explains Rainey. Typically, jazz quartets have piano rather than guitar, but pianos aren’t exactly portable (even keyboards are difficult to lug around and set up properly). Plus, guitar allows the band to explore a funkier, groovier sound that appeals to the quartet.

And also, evidently, to its listeners—the group draws a crowd during its noontime and Saturday evening pop-up performances, compelling passersby to stop and listen, tap a toe or even shimmy, swirl and twirl to the beat—summer heat be damned.

The four musicians, who play The Garage Friday night, are drawn to jazz because of its versatility, for the creative freedom it offers and encourages. “You don’t have to play exactly what’s on the page,” says Treece. “It can be more expressive within the band, because it’s meant to be more interpretive than exact.”

With that in mind, The Rainey Day Quartet is not averse to infusing swing, bop, bossa nova and funk elements into its music, and it’s equally willing to take a groove-heavy, see-where-it-goes approach to pop classics and current radio hits.

In a single set, RDQ might play jazz standards out of The Real Book, Erroll Garner’s classic “Misty” modernized with a hip-hop funk groove, a jazzy rendition of Jason Mraz’s pop track “I’m Yours” and a rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.”

“Once we get a crowd, we like to give them something they’ve heard on the radio, something modern they can stop and dance to,” says Treece.

No matter what they play, it’s an adventure. Because jazz doesn’t demand musicians to play “exactly by the book,” says Hoang, the quartet is free to change key, tempo or flavor—even switch songs halfway through if they want to.

That freedom and versatility hinges on the quartet’s ability not just to play together, but actively listen to one another as they play. It’s a skill they say they learned from Albemarle High School band director Greg Thomas.

“A big thing for us is how we communicate through a conversation of improvisation,” says Eisenberg. That conversation is spoken in a secret language that only the band understands—a unique combination of eye contact, body language and music cues. For example, if the band is playing at medium tempo, Rainey can move it into double time on guitar, prompting Eisenberg to match that tempo on drums so that Treece can lay into a heavier groove on bass, paving the way for Hoang to divert his sax solos down an untrodden path.

This is what makes jazz the ultimate creative exercise, says Hoang to sounds of agreement from his band members.

And people seem to like it, adds Rainey. At one point during a recent Saturday evening performance, a crowd of at least 20 people gathered to listen to the band. Most of them were dancing, laughing and smiling as they moved, says Rainey. These are the moments that he savors, seeing firsthand how the music touches its listeners. “It feels great to make a small difference in their day,” he says.