Song & Stage

Jam Session Thursdays Are Alive and Well at Union Cantina

The popular night life attraction is right at home in its new Mexican setting.

Thursday nights in Southampton will be a lot less sleepy this off-season as the hot spot Union Cantina has become the new home of hot music with the Jam Session. Union Cantina is, as everyone knows, the capacious home of Mexican-style food and drink at Bowden Square, and the Jam Session is, as everyone knows, the long-running home of world-class improvisational music (mainly jazz, in its many guises) on the South Fork.

Sag Harbor’s Claes Brondal started the Jam Session. Over the years it developed a devoted following at its previous location at the recently shuttered Bay Burger in Sag Harbor. “We had worked very hard to create the right energy there,” says Brondal. “Now, at Union Cantina, everything is so different. I was worried about being able to recreate that sacred energy there.” Well, Brondal is certainly right about the change in atmosphere—while Bay Burger was a brightly lit, family-style snack bar, Union Cantina has a more sophisticated and very distinct barroom ambience.

But Brondal needn’t have worried. On the first Thursday of October, the roomy bar was packed as Union Cantina and the Jam Session threw a kick-off party to celebrate their new association. From the get-go, the joint was popping with Afro-Cuban rhythms as top-flight Latin Jazz players from across the New York metro area blew through classics like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and the mambo favorite “Mambo Inn.” Famed musicians and Jam Session regulars like veteran Latin saxophonist Oscar Feldman, globe-trotting trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, and sought-after bassist Essiet Okon Essiet were on hand to lead things off. As they played, a number of younger players stood at the bar getting ready to sit in during the second half of the evening. The capacity audience was lapping up the music, along with platters of complimentary appetizers and tequila shots. (It was a kick-off party, after all.)

Brondal was tremendously relieved. “After the first song I knew we were in a safe space,” says Brondal. “The acoustic at Union Cantina is excellent.” That’s key. For improvisational musicians, it’s critical to be able to hear each other clearly and have a good sense of what the music sounds like to the audience. When it’s right, it can elevate a performance to an ethereal plane. “You can feel so spiritual, elevated and energized,” is how Brondal puts it. When the acoustic is wrong—well, let’s not get started on that. The point is, at Union Cantina, it’s right.

Ian Duke, owner of Union Cantina, Photo: Barbara Lassen
Ian Duke, owner of Union Cantina, Photo: Barbara Lassen

Union Cantina’s Ian Duke, who has decades of experience running live music venues in the city, was over the moon to have jazz luminaries playing in his bar. “I want to see Union Cantina becoming a hub for great music in the Hamptons,” Duke says. Duke doesn’t want to simply accommodate jazz at Union Cantina, according to Brondal, but wants to refine the space to make it ideal for the music. “Ian’s about ‘Let’s elevate the experience,’” says Brondal. “‘Let’s make this a great live jazz venue.’”

The mission of the Jam Session is to keep jazz alive. To that end, it has always taken its educational role very seriously. It’s not just about bringing world-class players like Randy Brecker (a Jam Session regular) to the Hamptons. It’s also about giving younger players the opportunity to play with legends like Randy Brecker. “The teaching side of it has been key,” says Brondal. “Having a young musician play a solo on a tune and then have someone like Randy Brecker play a solo right after—where would a young player get that experience outside of a big city?”

The Jam Session at Union Cantina—that’s where! Every Thursday night. starting at 7 p.m. So young people (or anybody for that matter) grab your horns and come down to sit in. The rest of us will relax and listen, have a drink and eat a taco or two. Jazz is alive at Union Cantina!

Union Cantina is located at 40 Bowden Square, Southhampton. 631-377-3500, unioncantina.net

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