This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2011 - It's 10:45 p.m. and a four-piece jazz ensemble is playing at Hammerstone's, the music club at 9th and Russell in Soulard. It's a Wednesday night and the front room, with its big tables, booths and bar, is packed. The crowd sits and listens while the vocalist and his band work through their set of jazz standards, soul classics and soft rock.
After a few songs, the jazz ensemble takes a break and allows a different group of musicians to take the stage. No one knows this yet, but in 15 minutes the entire club will be empty.
To understand why is to experience the unique musical stylings of the Torture Chamber Orchestra (TCO), a 20-piece, community band that is one part drinking fraternity, one part collective music lesson. This musical experiment is the brainchild of Margaret Bianchetta, a grade school music educator and longtime area musician. She serves as conductor, musical director and first clarinet (her primary instrument is flute), choosing the repertoire of rock classics, musical theater gems and novelty songs, "by shear whimsy."
The premise behind the TCO is simple ... no member, regardless of their proficiency, is allowed to play an instrument they are familiar with. This gives the ensemble its conceptual grounding, as well as, as you can imagine, its distinctive sonic characteristics, described to me by TCO trumpeter Teresa Hurley as "the sound of a drunk sixth grade band."
Formed in 2003 by Bianchetta, Dennis Wells, Mary Dee Brown and Robert Reichard, the ensemble began as a clarinet-only chamber ensemble playing Mozart minuets and other such classics. Over the years, more people began showing up for rehearsals -- intrigued by the premise and the sense of camaraderie.
It became clear to Bianchetta that not everyone who was joining the ensemble could play at the same level, "so we did away with the chamber music and started taking popular piano music and ripped it apart -- re-orchestrating I believe is the term," Bianchetta said dryly but with a smile in her eye. "So that way, everyone could leave satisfied" -- and the Torture Chamber Orchestra was born.
"We saw it as a kind of cross-training exercise for musicians, which is really what Margaret intended from the beginning -- by forcing oneself to sight-read on an unfamiliar instrument, one can improve one's acuity on one's primary instrument," said Wells, who is normally a guitarist but plays saxophone in the TCO.
At Hammerstone's, the TCO play a short, six song set that includes The Beatles "Ob La Di," the theme from "Hawaii 5-0," Rodger's and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening," Santana's "Oyo Como Va" and the piano classic "Heart and Soul."
This performance is their fifth of the night, the final set in a city-wide tour (and 50th birthday celebration for Bianchetta) that began at the Shanti in Soulard at 6 p.m. and took the ensemble as far afield as a basement party in Oakville overlooking the Mississippi River, a backyard patio in Kirkwood, The Iron Barley in South City only to return to Soulard four hours later, a little weary from the travel, the summer heat and a cooler full of Sangria.
As the band plays, the club fills with the sounds of honky clarinets, errant trumpet sounds, shrill violin bowing, all structured by an indistinguishable time signature. The patrons aren't quite sure what to do or say about it. They look at each other with forced smiles wondering, "Is this for real?" "This MUST be a joke?" "What's the going on here?" before all pantomiming the universal sign for "Check please."
"To be honest, if we were the only audience we ever had, that would be good enough. We love what we do and we love being around each other. To the extent that anyone else tolerates us, that is a sheer bonus," Wells said laughing.
To some, the TCO has the feeling of an avant-grade, inside joke that only the members of the band and a select group of "insiders" get. That might be true if it weren't for the sheer joy and commitment exhibited by its members. They come from all walks, but share two things: the desire to learn music and perform it in public (well, that and the ability to drink).
But jokes about aural assault and drinking are only one side of the TCO story. To embrace the Torture Chamber Orchestra is to embrace all that is beautiful about music and its ability to transcend race and class and gender and economics and language, to form unwritten bonds between people who might otherwise never meet and connect.
Wells explains it this way, "There is a certain sense of liberation that comes with this unique endeavor -- every member knows that each of us is out of our depth, so there is no judgment about any particular failure. We all know that we each will occasionally (or routinely) fail. We laugh about our own mishaps; we tease each other; and we do another take, doing better the next time. In an ironic way, the security of being free to fail fosters not only a desire to get it right but a real respect for the people sitting next to you going through the same struggle."
Four years ago, Hurley and her husband, Patrick, were out celebrating their wedding anniversary at Joe's Cafe in the Skinker/Debalivere neighborhood. They were there to see blues musician Tom Hall. At the intermission, the TCO played a short set.
"I was completely enthralled and got talking to Tom," Hurley said. "Tom said, 'You want to join?' and I said 'YEEEAAH!' " her face lighting up as she recounted the tale.
Hurley chose to play the trumpet because "the requirement of the band is that you have a working instrument that you don't know how to play. Patrick said, 'you can use my trumpet'."
She says the first time she blew through the instrument there was no sound. "And I don't think I was able to play a note for an entire month," Hurley said. Now, she takes solos during the band's performances and can read music.
"The cool thing about this band is that you can come in at any level and be accepted and encouraged to get better. If I suck, I'm doing it right; and if I'm good, I'm doing it right," Hurley continues. "It helps me put things in perspective. It helps me be more confident in my daily life."
Ben Kaplan is a freelance writer.