BENNINGTON -- South Street Cafe sounds different on Sundays.
Above the usual whirring and grinding of coffee beans, the bright, cozy room fills up with the spacious, loose jazz melodies of its regular Sunday trio: Gary Miller on the vibraphone, Darryl Kniffen on keyboard and Bennington’s own Dave Banulis on electric bass.
"Welcome to our laboratory," says Miller from behind his instrument, as the combo gets ready to begin playing.
This feeling of freedom and experimentation guides the players during their standing gig, which starts most Sunday mornings at 11 and lasts until about 1 p.m.
"It’s really low-key, so we can try new, innovative ideas and be as creative as we want." Kniffen explained. "We can do whatever we want."
One of these interesting innovations is the absence of drums in the group, especially since Miller and Kniffen are both experienced drummers. Without having to compete with the loud booms and cracks of a drum kit, the combo is able to play at a modest, relaxed volume, creating the perfect ambient sound for cafe patrons who want to enjoy their Sunday mornings with a good book, or have a quiet conversation with friends. Most of the audience is happy sitting quietly, with their undivided attention on the music.
"My instrument is actually pretty soft, and I don’t like to hit it hard, so it’s nice to have a really wide range of dynamics" Miller said.
"I don’t feel that it’s lacking anything.
He also explained that they have found other ways to incorporate rhythmic elements into their playing.
"Sometimes Gary will pick up the cowbell or play very percussive stuff on the sides of the vibraphone, or during solos I’ll just play a rhythm part on the piano," he said. "Rhythm is constantly present."
Cafe owner Lauryn Starkie-Kreuder says they have had Sunday jazz for more than a year, although Miller said that the current lineup didn’t come together until this past summer. Kniffen had previously performed at South Street with other groups, and he initially came up with the idea of jazz Sundays as a way to learn the musical style.
"I wanted to learn piano, so I bought a piano and set up the gig here," said Kniffen, a graduate of the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. He currently runs the music program at at Twin Valley Elementary School in Wilmington.
Although he was planning to play solo, Kniffen said Dave Banulis quickly contacted him about playing the gig together. Banulis, a Bennington resident who plays in local groups like the Ransom Notes, had a longtime musical relationship with Miller, who recently retired as the director of music at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, and the trio came together.
"I play with Dave a lot, but the first time I played with Darryl, it just clicked," Miller said.
"It’s a funny thing with music," he continued. "You can play with people for years, and sometimes it just doesn’t click, or you have to work at it. With these guys, it was pretty instant."
The trio’s repertoire includes standards from the American jazz songbook, including favorites like "All Blues" by Miles Davis, "Footprints" by Wayne Shorter, and "Song for My Father" by the Horace Silver Quintet, as well as original jazz tunes that Miller has composed over the years.
At a recent performance, Miller introduced an original song, "What Time is it Mr. Fox," which he said references a children’s game that he once played with his daughter. To the audience’s delight, Kniffen cracked a smile and began playing a jokey piano-jazz arrangement of Ylvis’ viral hit "The Fox" (a song that explores the essential question "what does the fox say?").
Moments like this show the comfort and confidence that the musicians have in their playing. Even without drums, their rhythms seem to lock together effortlessly, helping create a wide open feel with plenty of space for new ideas and improvisation.
With their instruments set up just inside the door in front of the foggy front window, the band is perfectly positioned so baristas can watch over the espresso machine as they make drinks. As each tune ends, the loudest applause often comes from behind the counter.
"The staff always loves it!," said Starkie-Kreuder in an e-mail. Although some Sundays are quiet downtown, she said, the cafe is sometimes noticeably busier when the Miller, Banulis and Kniffen trio are playing.
"Most weeks, groups come in specifically to enjoy the jazz while meeting friends. It is fun to see little kids really enjoying it," she said. "We’re really blessed to have them returning so often."
Jack McManus can be reached on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go ...
What: Sunday morning jazz
Where: South Street Cafe, 105 South St., Bennington, Vt.
When: Sundays, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Information: (802) 447-2423, www.southstreetcafe.com