By Laurel Fishman
The second annual GRAMMY In The Schools Live! at the University of Southern California was a night full of surprises for everyone. Starting out backstage before the show, I caught up with the celebration's guest artist and current GRAMMY nominee Sara Bareilles. We talked about how excited she was to be nominated, and Bareilles told me that with touring, her new album, the GRAMMY nod, and this event, "Things are going swimmingly!"
Bareilles said her own music education and participating in school chorus early on had revealed her true identity. "I found out who I was through music," she said. "Tonight it all comes full circle. Sharing the stage with the GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles. I'm transported back to being 16 in high school!"
In rehearsal, Bareilles was pleasantly surprised by the students with whom she would share the stage. "They came super prepared and incredibly focused," she said. "They were eager and flexible, and they showed lots of confidence."
Next I connected with Mindi Abair, who was a GRAMMY In The Schools Live! guest artist last year. Hanging out in the back of the ballroom Abair couldn't wait for the show to start. "This time I'll be seeing the show from a completely different angle, just being a fan," She said. "I was so inspired last time, I had to come back to get inspired again!"
But it was the performers who were about to be the most surprised of all. Just before the show started, GRAMMY Jazz Band trumpet player Josh Shpak confided that the students had rehearsed more than a dozen songs for the show, but the band director would be "telling us on the spot" which songs to play.
When the show took off, the GRAMMY Jazz Band and GRAMMY Jazz Combo distinguished themselves on classic standards such as "Blue Samuel" "Stella By Starlight," and "Shiny Stockings." The players expressed moods ranging from wistful to exultant, skillfully swinging their way though climaxes and crescendos, and softer "bluer" sections. They rendered complex Latin stylings and tasty solos that GRAMMY Jazz Band music director Justin DiCioccio later told me were difficult even for professional musicians to play.
Each performance by the GRAMMY Choir featured intricate harmonies, and the vocalists delivered an a cappella version of "Hush, Hush, Hush," a poignant song about a father saying goodbye to his dying son, with sensitivity and maturity. In each piece they sang, the GRAMMY Choir's timing and phrasing rivaled the skills of professional jazz singers.
Closing the show with a couple of numbers with the students, Bareilles said, "I want to take them all on tour...This is too much fun!" She added, "If I didn't have music, I would have been pretty lost in my life, and I love seeing these kids kick so much a**!"
That's exactly what each one of them did — surprisingly well.