True North debuts in Little Tokyo

True North:  Campbell, Lash, Sheridan and Falker
True North: Campbell, Lash, Sheridan and Falker

One of the poems about music inscribed on the ceiling of downtown’s Blue Whale jazz club reads, “As brightness is to time, so you are to the one who talks to the deep ear in your chest.” TRUE NORTH made a truly bright debut in Los Angeles on May 11, singing directly into the deep ears of the buzzing, happy crowd.

True North is a quartet of all killer, no filler vocal heavy hitters. Baritone Matt Falker, tenor/alto Fletcher Sheridan, and sopraltos Katie Campbell and Sharmila Guha Lash fronted the Ron McCurdy Collective for several years. Eventually, they decided to embark on a more original direction as a quartet – one that better showcased their own writing and arrangements. Sometimes they’re backed by a trio (Gary Fukushima on piano, Roger Shew on bass, and Sammy K on drums), sometimes they’re a cappella, and sometimes they break into different vocal and instrumental combinations. And all of them… really work well.

All four of them have shared the stage, soundstage or recording studio with amazing vocalists and/or vocal groups, from the LA Master Chorale to Bobby McFerrin, m-pact to Danny Elfman. The vocalists take turns knocking leads, backgrounds, and ensemble tunes out of each and every ballpark. Their joy and ease at making great music is only matched by the obvious joy they get working with each other; it’s truly a pleasure to watch and listen to them.

Both sets included selections from True North’s album, with tunes from their respective solo projects seamlessly intermingled. The repertoire ran from Latin to straight ahead standards (classic and contemporary) to fusion to Huey Lewis & the News. Only the backing trio’s pieces opening each set seemed out of sync; although they were tight, their bent was decidedly more hardcore jazz.

With musicians this great, it’s difficult to say that any one tune was “better” than any of the others – these four are such skilled soloists, scatters and ensemble blenders. I liked the covers of San Diego artist Peter Sprague’s work, especially “Can’t Make Much Sense Outta You” – a playful tone reminiscent of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross commentary, a breathtaking group cover of Paula Cole’s “Hush” arranged by Sheridan, and “Let It Be,” an insightful, funny tune about group communication penned by Lash and arranged by Falker. And I’ve always super-dug Sheridan’s funky shuffle regrooving of “The Boy From New York City,” written for Campbell’s superb solo album, End of the Beginning. Falker’s deconstructionist cover of “Centerpiece” – done at the piano with the bass and drums – gave the blues a spare yet playful freshness.

Backstage at the Blue Whale, May 2014
Backstage at the Blue Whale, May 2014

It’s not surprising that Campbell was tapped to sub for Cheryl Bentyne on Manhattan Transfer’s recent US tour (and Alan Paul was spotted in the audience). Hearing this group, with its superb musicianship and stellar in-house arranging chops, one can’t help but think of the Transfer, who, along with New York Voices, keep the bar so high in this specific genre. True North is pointed firmly in the direction of these classic quartets. It was a pleasure to see them launch.

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