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Concert Review

Sierra College Vocal Jazz

A Vocal Jazz Recital - April 4, 2014

by Dena Kouremetis

Vocal Jazz Recital: A Big Hit in a Small Venue

The setting was intimate and relaxed inside Sierra College’s D-12 theater-style classroom where Vocal Jazz’s day and night class groups performed on a crisp spring Friday night.  The groups’ director, Sarah McQueen-Cunningham, lent a casual air with her comments and introductions. Upon hearing a rousing applause, we all chuckled as she informed us that the enthusiasm of our applause would have no bearing on our grades.  Cunningham also explained that we were there to “beta-test” the groups, who were performing their numbers for the first time in preparation for an upcoming performance in Reno.

Vocal Jazz Ensemble and its separate a cappella group, along with the Sierra College Jazz Voices, and the Sierra College Jazz Ensemble were accompanied by a talented group of instrumentalists, including Greg McLaughlin on piano and flute, Tim Stephenson on drums (a brand spanking new faculty member), former student Brett Cole on  string bass and Greg Perkins on guitar. Soundman Jeremy Kauffman figures in as an important team member as well.

“We have a jam session at every rehearsal,” Cunningham explains, “so this is just an extension of all the fun we have with the music on a weekly basis.”   Indeed, as the music began and the instrumentalists began to play around the melody of Victor Young’s Weaver of Dreams, we could tell the musicians were eminently at ease with their style, as if we were sitting in the darkened room of a jazz club in the heart of the Big Apple. In typical jazz fashion, each instrumentalist was featured.

(Click here to open the program in a new window.)

The first three vocal numbers were performed by the director herself as an example to her evening vocal jazz students of what they have to look forward to as they perform their own requisite solos before the semester ends. She started her set with Black Orpheus, from the 1959 French film shot in Brazil. The melody was instantly familiar to me, having been a fan of Brazilian jazz from my teens and collected every Sergio Mendes album that ever existed the moment they hit the record stores. Cunningham’s next solo, Lush Life, was a bluesy, intricate song written by Billy Strayhorn of Duke Ellington fame. Originally written for Lena Horne (who evidently never felt entirely comfortable with the song), it reflects the challenges Strayhorn faced as a black, gay man in the 1930s. Cunningham’s ability to keep up with more key changes in one song than I thought possible is a tribute to her training and understanding of the piece.

My favorite by far (and a sure crowd-pleaser) was the irreverent and sassy Peel Me a Grape, written by David Frishberg. I loved not only the tune, but the lyrics: “Pop me a cork, French me a fry, crack me a nut, bring a bowl full of bon-bons, chill me some wine, keep standing by. Just entertain me, champagne me, show me you love me, kid glove me. Best way to cheer me; cashmere me. I'm getting hungry, peel me grape” – prompting me find Diana Cralle’s YouTube version as soon as I got home just to hear it again. 

The 12-member Jazz Voices were up next. Joey Calderazzo’s Midnight Voyage began with the smoothest, most elegantly blended chorus of men’s voices (dropped jaws, cool, even tones) I have heard in a very long time, with no particular voice going off-key even just a hair from the others. Kerry Marsh’s arrangements are evidently a new style of vocal jazz sweeping the nation, and it’s plain to see why.  Tenor Kellyn Stephens’ scat singing and rapid-fire lyrics delighted listeners as others sang back-up.

But Beautiful, published in 1947 by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke was one of five songs by them featured in Paramount Pictures’ movie, Road To Rio. Usually performed as a ballad, it is associated with Crosby and Hope’s leading lady, Dorothy Lamour. Soloist Mavis Shawl sang slowly, as you hear the lyricist’s take on the bittersweet nature of love.

A well-known pop tune written by Stevie Wonder, Higher Ground featured soloists Dylan Hoy-Bianchi and Mitch Wersky. This jazzy rendition included a skillful scat-sung portion by Werksy, who used his voice as an instrument – eyes closed and singing around the melody – as if he were ad-libbing the entire time.

The college’s Evening Vocal Jazz group meets only one evening a week, making it a challenge to both learn and rehearse their music, but they pulled out all the stops nonetheless. Cunningham explained that they often get together on their own to practice.  Performing Neil Young’s Old Man, Laura Nyro’s Stoned Soul Picnic, Bill Evens’ Waltz for Debbie, McCartney and Lennon’s Blackbird and finally Words (not listed on the program, and I am not familiar with the number nor the composer), members of the day class joined the group for some a cappella singing, featuring some delightfully down and dirty harmonies and rhythms.

Being a writer by trade, my favorite of this set was Words, which started out reminding me of Jailhouse Tango from the musical Chicago, where each inmate tells her story using a particular spoken word to represent it. Four singers gathered at one end, speaking and whispering lyrics (becoming their own percussion section) as others sang over them.  This combination of talking and singing was definitely not of the rap variety and had my attention at "hello." Blackbird included a number of intricate moving parts, with gorgeous chords and its always-haunting harmony.

Because I have always been a big fan of close-harmony jazz numbers, this little concert not only had me wanting to come back for more, but it also made me seriously consider taking one of these classes to augment my own vocal training.  No time to “take five” after this experience….

Event reviewer Dena Kouremetis studied languages and psychology at Ball State University, Deree University in Athens, Greece and at l'Alliance Française in Paris. A San Francisco native and Folsom resident, Kouremetis is a freelance writer, author, journalist and professional blogger.  Her musical accomplishments include having sung in a number of audition-only choral groups, and she is currently a member of the Placer Pops Chorale.

Dena Kouremetis may be reached at

 2014 Reviews