The Sacramento Choral Calendar


Concert Review

Sierra College Vocal Jazz

Vocal Jazz Recital - November 6, 2015

by Dena Kouremetis

For some reason, I am often more entertained by those just getting their singing chops as opposed to seeing veteran singers perform. Perhaps that’s why I love to see those talented 15-20 year olds get up on stage on “The Voice” and sing their hearts out while the crowd roars, as well as why I opted to review this evening of Sierra College’s Vocal Jazz Recital. My third-row front and center seat afforded me an unobstructed view of four unique and sometimes blended ensembles, making it a night to remember. Sierra’s groups were joined by the seasoned Sac State Jazz Singers, which only added to my appreciation for the evening. I had attended last year’s recital, where we crammed into a tiny theater-style music room, but I found Sierra’s Dietrich Theater to be eminently more comfortable.

Recitals being the casual presentations that they are meant to be, friends and relatives of students appearing on stage gathered to hear the sounds of enthusiastic young voices delighting in some of the most interesting jazz vocals I have heard to date. Accompanist Gregory McLaughlin introduced the evening after sauntering on stage and thanking everyone for attending what was obviously an evening of well-practiced jazz by four talented groups from two area colleges.  They showcased close harmonies, unique singing styles and intricate, syncopated arrangements of some classics I’ve known and loved for decades, as well as others I would like to know better. McLaughlin pointed out how those who play jazz like to live “in the moment” — which was why the printed program listed the groups and the numbers they were about to sing in no particular order, evoking chuckles from the crowd.

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

Sierra College Vocal Jazz II’s soloist Dasha Birkina (of the sparkly shoes) began with Neil Young’s "Old Man," joined by Mitch Wersky in close harmonies and clean tones, while Katy Perry’s "Wide Awake," found Samantha Rodriguez Thomas delivering cool vocals, as well. Then the Sac State C-sus Voices bent to pick up their mikes for some interesting and innovative numbers, including a rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "My Favorite Things" in a Kelly Kunz arrangement that defies description. Like a fine wine in which one tries to recognize flavors of grapes, wood, and other interesting infusions, in this song I found myself basking in shades of Brazilian jazz, with its frequent tempo changes, scat-singing Americana and jam session-style singing as students swayed, cut the air with their syncopated rhythm gestures and wowed the audience with all-around jazz passion.

Proud mama-bear director Gaw Vang, who introduced many of the numbers, wandered into and out of view, reminding students of cut-offs and instrumentalists of orchestration segments, and seemingly wanting to join in the performance fun at any moment. Because Sierra College Director Sarah McQueen Cunningham was suddenly called away for a personal matter, Vang skillfully took over direction of several of the groups in their final weeks of preparation for the recital.

Sac State’s Vox Now is a smaller group formed to bring music to underserved parts of the Sacramento area, planning a November 20th outreach program to benefit the South Sacramento community. As they performed numbers to be used in the upcoming program, they joined in seamless a cappella vocals for "True Colors," followed by a total change of pace as they transitioned to a bluesy, lively Buddy Guy number, "Show Me the Money" that featured a number of scat solos.

The Sierra College Jazz Singers performed a varied selection, including an inspired New York Voices arrangement of Laura Nyro’s classic, "Stone Soul Picnic," the thought-provoking "Uninvited" by Alanis Morissette with its dissonant chords that resolved into pleasing harmonies (handled admirably by a young lady named Iliana Granados) and "Ready, Aim Fire," written by Jo Lawry, one of Sting’s original back-up singers. But what slayed me was a Kerry Marsh arrangement of "Hymn of Axicom," performed a cappella, which featured clear harmonies, meaningful lyrics and came off like a ballad, ending in a quiet “amen.”

Sac State Jazz Singers’ four numbers including Fox and Gimble’s "Killing Me Softly" that contained intricate harmonies, arranged with a lot of creative license by Gene Pureling. The group showed particular skill in fading out and trailing off at the end of the song, as if we were listening to a record whose volume was purposely turned down as it ended (yes, I used to listen to RECORDS). Elizabeth Unpingco (who celebrated her birthday on performance day) soloed in the fast-moving Hampton and Ross’ song "Jackie," her style reminiscent of the scat-singing by the late, great Ella Fitzgerald. And Kurt Elling’s "In the Winelight" found one young man (I am sorry I was unable to procure his name) exploding amazing mouth-percussion-instrumentals and rhythms into his microphone as others sang around him.

All in all, I found the fate of jazz alive and well in the hands of some of the youngest college enthusiasts as demonstrated by moving bodies, closed eyes, the occasional bend at the knees and a few hand flourishes as they performed some of the closest and most intricate harmonies I have heard to date. And I thank Sierra College as well as Sacramento Choral Calendar for the opportunity to review the evening.

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

 2015 Reviews