Tight harmonies and sass: True North at bluewhale

by Lauren Michelle Hayes, Lister reviewer

Tucked away in the corner of a large shopping center in the heart of Little Tokyo, the bluewhale bar provided a beautiful, artistic, and eclectic space for vocal jazz quartet, True North, on January 11, a chilly Monday night.  Comprised of the brilliant vocals of soprano Katie Campbell, alto Sharmila G. Lash, tenor Fletcher Sheridan, and bass Matt Falker, the group has created a truly unique blend of elements drawn from a cappella music, contemporary jazz, and chamber music.   The band that played alongside them for the evening (comprised of Josh Nelson on piano, Ron Suffredini on string/electric bass, and Sammy “K” Kestenholtz on drums) was the perfect complement to True North’s nuanced vocals, and added to the exhilarating musical synergy that was so present during their entire performance.

The first set of the evening set the bar for sophisticated musicianship extraordinarily high.  The opening number featured the band, sans vocals, and the audience was immediately drawn in by the sheer joy and connectedness between the musicians.  Pianist Josh Nelson led the ensemble through perfectly-timed syncopations, several complex solos, and challenging riffs with effortlessness and ease, all with an enormous smile on his face.  Kestenholtz and Suffredini reflected those smiles back, playing off of each other’s improvisations as if all three were of the same mind.  It was already quite clear that the audience was in for a musical treat by the time the vocalists entered the stage for the rest of the set.

Our first taste of the True North vocal sound came in the form of the tight, complex harmonies that showcased their blend as an ensemble, as well as a small sampling of their individual solo and scat abilities.  Each singer is a powerhouse vocalist on their own, with the ability to mimic the sounds of musical instruments to an astonishing degree.  This ability was most obvious during their arrangement of “Jacket Town” by contemporary jazz group, Yellow Jackets, in which the vocalists took turns in the feature spot, then seamlessly blending into the background textures of the overall musical tapestry so that the band members could solo as well.

Halfway through the first set was the group’s first entirely a cappella number: a cover of Paula Cole’s haunting, heart-wrenching ballad, “Hush, Hush, Hush.”  Fletcher Sheridan took a brief moment to explain that this song is about the relationship between an estranged father and his son, who was dying of AIDS in a hospital bed. Without the addition of instruments, we were better able to fully appreciate the precise, soaring vocals in an entirely new way, and there were moments where the music captured the intense pain and emotion of the lyrics.  There was not a dry eye in the house by the song’s conclusion.

After one more lighthearted number, the final song of the first set was an arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”.  It was during this song that the entire audience really lit up, with several people singing along to the familiar tune. Many fun and unique elements were thrown in to spice up the arrangement, including beatboxing, bass guitar solos, scat solos, and a fun choreographed section where the singers imitated the sounds of a vibraphone, while pretending to play one.  The audience was ecstatic, and even though it was quite late for a Monday evening, the excitement in the air was palpable.

After a 20-minute intermission, the band came back on stage (again, sans vocals), to gather the audience for another round of amazing music. Once the vocal quartet re-entered the stage, they launched into two uptempo numbers called “Lotus Blossom” by Kenny Dorham, and “Better Days” by Pat Metheny and Randy Phillips, again showing off their signature musical precision and tight jazz harmonies.

One of the many highlights of the evening, however, was hearing some original music by pianist Josh Nelson and alto Sharmila Lash. Nelson’s piece (titled “Fly Away, Birdie”) featured guest vocalist, Glynis Davies, and allowed the group to move into a more soulful, gospel-inspired sound.  Nelson dedicated the piece to the recently deceased jazz legend, Natalie Cole, and to commemorate the seven years he spent playing piano for her in her band, a personal connection that lent an even more soul-stirring touch to the overall performance.  Lash’s piece (titled “Let it Be”) is a hilarious and sassy little number inspired by some of the challenges of communication. It was a good chance to hear Lash’s rich alto voice, and to see more of her well-developed sense of humor.

The end of the second set came about entirely too quickly, and the audience was not ready to let the group go. After a few moments of calls for an encore, True North happily obliged, and sang one final number before wrapping up their incredible show, and joyfully greeting their friends, family, and fans. The musical versatility, vocal flexibility, and overall skill demonstrated by the members of True North that evening was beyond all expectation, and the performers’ energy and enthusiasm made for one spectacular night of music.



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