The Sacramento Choral Calendar
American River College Vocal Jazz
Vocal Jazz Winter Concert - December 9, 2015
by Dick Frantzreb
It was a Wednesday night, and the American River College theater seemed almost full with a very diverse crowd. Performers for the night were the 14-member ARC Jazz Choir and the 8-member ARC Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Program Director, Dr. Arthur LaPierre greeted the audience and spoke to us at various points throughout the show. He explained that the Folsom High School Vocal Jazz Choir has been part of this annual concert for 10 years, but that a personal conflict on the part of their director, Curtis Gaesser, prevented their appearance tonight. So instead, members of the Vocal Jazz Ensemble would be performing solos. LaPierre also introduced the combo — piano, guitar, bass and drums — that would be accompanying the singers.
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After LaPierre’s introduction, the Jazz Choir entered, all dressed differently, but all in black with red accents, and they took up their positions in a single line, each with a microphone. As they performed their two numbers, LaPierre directed them only occasionally — mostly on cues and nuances. I’m not experienced enough with vocal jazz to analyze their performance, but it seemed to me that they sang well, and with everyone moving, they were feeling the music and delivering it with style.
I should mention that, throughout the night, pianist Dr. Joe Gilman and guitarist Steve Homan were the continuing stars of the show, with bassist Matt Robinson and drummer Rick Lotter doing yeoman work. Gilman and Homan had solos in almost every number, and their improvisation was truly impressive: Homan with expert fingering and lots of fresh sounds; Gilman with his own repertoire of creative musical ideas and amazing dexterity — notes delivered with as much rapidity and fluidity as if they were being poured out of a bottle.
I thought the solos by the singers were all solid, and although there was a little variation in vocal quality, they were all very listenable. And nearly all came across as confident performers. To add to the interest in their set, there was a lot of variety in their songs: slow ballads to upbeat, some from the early years of the American Songbook, some more recent.
As I was listening to Andrew Preston sing “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” I wrote in my notes that he struck me as “a real vocal stylist.” I felt the same about Raven Kauba singing “Good Morning Heartache.” A few singers had rhythmic gaffes, entering too early or missing a beat, and the instrumentalists had to cover for them. But problems were few and minor, and all the singers gave engaging performances.
Assistant Director Megan Ugarte had the last solo, “Everything I’ve Got Belongs to You,” and she struck me as someone with exceptional voice, style, and personality. In my opinion she went beyond being a jazz singer to being a real entertainer.
After intermission, LaPierre welcomed us back and shared some of his pride in his program and in his singers. ARC Vocal Jazz has won 14 Downbeat awards and placed first or second in the country. He pointed out how far this group had come as “first semester” students. However, that can’t mean that they were all new to vocal jazz. I’ve seen high school jazz choirs with really impressive skills (Folsom High School’s several choirs, for example), and I bet tonight’s singers got a great head start in honing their skills before they came to American River College.
The Vocal Jazz Ensemble then performed their set of 5 songs, and a lot of things impressed me as they went through their program. All this music seemed very difficult to me, and I marveled that they could memorize it all. I particularly enjoyed “One Less Bell,” in which I was able to pick up a good blend of voices and in which I noted how expressive the styling was. LaPierre did a fair amount of coaching as they sang, and when it was over I had the feeling that I had witnessed a well-crafted performance . All the other numbers were enjoyable to me, though “Love Wins” was another highlight, with Megan Ugarte coming through with a dynamite solo performance.
There was a lot of good music going on tonight, and I have to reiterate that the improvisation on piano by Gilman and guitar by Homan would alone have been worth coming to hear. Another thing that struck me tonight was this: Art LaPierre comes across as an inspirational leader, and he left no doubt about how proud he was of his students — and rightly so.