The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Sacramento State University, Jazz Studies
Vocal Jazz Ensembles - December 1, 2017
by Dena Kouremetis
(This review sponsored by Samantics.)
It was one of those early fall evenings when northern Californians finally admit colder weather and the holiday season are upon us, which means we have to actually wear coats for a few months. The mess and memories from the Thanksgiving holiday just behind us, it’s almost maddening that we have already begun hearing (and in my case, practicing) Christmas music for a while. That’s why attending CSUS’ Vocal Jazz performance was such a refreshing moment for me. The groups singing their hearts out were performing my favorite type of music — smooth jazz. There was no Christmas music in the program except for a few send-off numbers at the end — fine by me, as I was already fa-la-la-exhausted before December ever started.
Led by Sac State’s inimitable Gaw Vang, whose ability to pluck and grow talent seems to be second nature to her, five collections of students from freshman to grads climbed the stage steps at the University’s School of Music to show off the past year’s efforts at mostly a cappella singing, showing us just how that’s done — with enthusiasm, precision, and attention to the tiniest vocal detail. Vang’s program strives to explore new, innovative approaches to contemporary vocal jazz, and she does that in spades.
(Click here to open the program in a new window.)
The first group up was the 7-member Sac State Jazz Singers, who sang three numbers in vibrato-less perfection with and without accompaniment by piano, bass, and drums, blending chords so close they can only be appreciated by those who die for the way jazz expresses itself. Darn That Dream, Ghost, and especially Duke Ellington’s In a Mellotone showcased soloists’ scat-singing talents, the latter being highlighted with low-crashing cymbals, smooth tones and razor-sharp harmonies. In semi-circular splendor, the singers looked to one another to blend their voices so that only intended solos stood out.
C-Sus Voices presented Anders Edenroth’s Pass Me the Jazz in a 9-voice configuration that also featured several soloists with music and lyrics that are “appreciated, elevated, and syncopated.” Radiance was a touching number, written by Keith Jarret for his young daughter who was battling cancer at the time. It started out soft and sweet, as if a father were watching his child, with the lyrics “Sometimes in her sleep, she smiles. Is she dreaming? Is she far away?” The heart-rending emotions of a parent came through the singers’ voices, nearly putting me in tears. The mood was then lightened up as the set ended with a silly song called Jackie, with music by Hampton Howes and lyrics by Annie Ross, about a “swingin’ hip mouse,” originally performed by New York Voices. “If you wanna hear the story of a mouse in all his glory, then I’ll tell you all about the time I was giggin’ with the band.” The scat singing parts were performed in inspired, expressive snippets and the singers looked like they were having the time of their lives in the process.
The audience was treated to a unique collection of seasoned singers as the Senior and Graduate Group performed three numbers. It should be noted that several of the singers are also skilled instrumentalists, including baritone Jesse Crosson on guitar. This group is a collaborative effort that is self-directed, sung mostly a cappella, and the music is performed in the group’s own signature arrangements. Sara Bareilles’ Soft Place to Land featured graduating senior Temo Aguilar, who had recently performed in his own recital. Fire Places by Paul Towber started out engagingly slow, painting a visual with the lyrics “The world will still spin and you will learn what you already know. But it will sound new…” — a song perfectly positioned to express how these graduates’ lives are now ready for launch. Goldmine was arranged by and featured singer Diana Campos, in which she sang about finding a treasure and not letting go of it. Jesse Crosson accompanied the group on the electric drums. At the end of this group’s performance, Gaw Vang honored the graduates with a touching farewell, flowers, and a personal tribute to several of them.
The Vocal Jazz and Acapella Lab consisted of students showing an aspiring early interest in vocal jazz. The group started with John Coltrane’s Mr. PC, originally written for his bass player, alluding to Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm in one stanza. It featured Bob Stanley imitating a string bass and a drum solo by Sean Nelson. The group’s second number, Peter Eldridge and Lauren Kinhand’s The World Keeps You Waiting, was a song of hope, illustrating how we only grow in our darkest moments. Kelsey Coutts and Alexis Venegas sang as a smooth duo in part of the piece, and a piano solo by baritone Alex Agius wowed us.
The program ended with Vox Now, the largest of the groups to perform this evening. Sixteen singers sang the familiar Give Me the Simple Life, scat-singing around the melody in a great arrangement of a song made popular in 1946 in the movie Wake Up and Dream, sung by greats like Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Julie London, Mel Tormé, and presented in instrumental mode by the late Benny Goodman and pianist Oscar Peterson. The depth of sound with this number of singers lent to a versatile, toe-tapping experience for those of us who know all those people I just mentioned, and hopefully introduced the number to the younger members of the audience, as well.
Boomerang was written by student singer/instrumentalist Jesse Crosson, originally performed as part of a recent Sac State TEDx event. And with talented mouths imitating instruments, who needs accompaniment? An uplifting song, the lyrics repeated, “Every time I give my love away, it comes back to me better than before.” Now or Never by Darmon Meader, first made popular by New York Voices, contained what I heard as a Brazilian Jazz vibe, with a solo by the extremely talented soprano Megan Ugarte.
The last two numbers reminded us of the season once again, as the well-known A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square showed off some of Vox Now’s purest tones, and White Christmas saw the group split in half performing it in two arrangements (Pentatonix/Manhattan Transfer) together to make a delightful combo.
As I filed out of the theater, I could see how audience members and students rushed director Vang before I could ever get a chance to introduce myself. But I thought about some lines from the movie La La Land, where a main character laments the idea that jazz might die if young people don’t make a super-human effort to keep it alive. “It’s conflict and compromise,” says Seb, explaining his feelings about his passion for jazz to his romantic lead, who claims she doesn’t understand it.
But if this concert showed us anything, it’s that vocal jazz is alive and well, appreciated and understood by both these talented students and CSUS Vocal Jazz’s passionate director (who is as much fun to watch on the sidelines as it is to watch her students performing on stage).
Reviewer Dena Kouremetis is a professional freelance writer and author who not only sings alto with the local group Placer Pops Chorale and Orchestra, but also blogs for Psychology Today and is a past contributor to Forbes.com. She began her writing career freelancing for the Sacramento Bee back in the late ‘90s.