The members of Jelly Jar
Photo by Anthony Chabala
“In the pocket” is a term that describes a band being so in sync that the music flows effortlessly. Jelly Jar, a group of five musicians and lifelong friends, whose shared passion for music has kept them rocking out for more than two decades, were deep “in the pocket” the first time I saw them, and every time since. Each member has a successful day job, rich family life, and other hobbies, too.
Starting in 1996 as a blues band, Jelly Jar’s style today can be described as an eclectic mix of rock, soul and R ’n B. At any given show, you may hear interpretations of chart-toppers like “Billy Jean,” “Hit the Road Jack,” and “Beast of Burden,” plus other familiar foot tapping hits.
One might never guess that lead singer Jeff Hypnarowski, who by day is an aggregate quality control tech at Buffalo Crushed Stone, isn’t a full-time musician. From the lows of “Sunny” to the falsetto highs of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” his incredibly wide vocal range and hypnotizing stage presence impress both his audience and fellow performers. Hand this reserved and soft-spoken man a microphone, and Hypnarowski transforms into the group’s groovy front man whose energy is contagious. “The music just brings it out of us,” he says. “We have been playing together for so long, it just feels automatic.”
Keyboardist Ken Africano has long been impressed with Hypnarowski’s versatile style. “Most singers will sway the band into changing the key of the song to fit his or her voice, but we just play, and Jeff goes and does this thing, and what comes out is often magic,” he says.
You may wonder how Africano, a partner at the law firm Harter Secrest & Emery and adjunct professor at the University at Buffalo Law School, has time to take on music gigs. He gladly makes the time for one reason: “it is really just about the music,” he says. The countless hours he has poured into mastering his instrument and developing a rapport with his band mates is indicative of that passion. His classical training from Rochester’s Eastman Prep School translates onstage to a level of sophistication a cut above the standard bar or club act.
Another music-loving attorney, bassist Bill Savino, has been dedicated to his craft all his life. Until age twenty-six, he tried making music his career. “I learned at Eastman that, even though I passed their stringent entrance exam, I had a less than perfect ear,” he says. Now a partner at the law firm of Woods Oviatt Gilman, Savino also teaches at UB Law School, races cars, plays golf, and holds himself to a strict practice schedule. “I start doing finger exercises ten days prior to a gig,” he says, which is not surprising given his level of enthusiasm and dedication.
Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee John Brady fills the role of guitarist. Brady, whose compositions have been recorded by the likes of Albert Collins, has witnessed first-hand the power of music through his forty-plus years of performing and teaching. “I have students of all ages, and it’s amazing to see their faces light up when they play their favorite song on guitar for the first time.”
Independent insurance agent by day, drummer by night, Kevin Roth rounds out the band with four solid decades of percussion experience dating back to his college studies in music. A proud father and family man, Roth is honored to call Jelly Jar his family, as well. “We have been together so long, we can tell what each other is thinking. The better any band communicates, the better they are.”
For Jelly Jar, music is not an escape from their busy lives. The music, the camaraderie, the gentle ribbing, the scotch sipping afterward is more of a celebration of where they are, the music, and the love of it. According to Savino, “There are only three times in life when I can turn off my brain and be totally in the moment: when I am racing a car, when in my downswing (golfing), and when I am playing music... and nothing can beat that feeling.”
Witnessing this band communicate so effortlessly and perform with such prowess makes me want to be a better musician. They even managed to pass my ultimate litmus test. I am not a dancer. I didn’t even dance at my own wedding, but the energy this band created the first time I saw them nearly turned me into Fred Astaire.
My personal favorite performance complicates the age old debate over who did the better version of “Take Me to the River”—Al Green or Talking Heads...or Jelly Jar?
Jelly Jar can be seen throughout WNY and the first Friday of every month at Buffalo’s 31 Club.
Anthony Chabala is a local law clerk, golfer, and musician.