A Little Night Music

 Concert at San Jose State University, with my late mentor, Frank Sumares.

Concert at San Jose State University, with my late mentor, Frank Sumares.

When I was in college, I fell in love, hard. It wasn’t sudden. My love for jazz had been building for a few years by then.

It started in seventh grade choir, learning songs like “Hey There” from The Pajama Game and “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. I would spend nearly all of my high school years obsessing over original Broadway musical soundtracks. I learned during that time that songs from musicals were the popular music of that time. Singers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole and even Judy Garland all recorded nearly every song written by great composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern. These were the songs that got radio play and sold records! And my teenage discovery of an AM radio station dedicated to these old standards unearthed a goldmine of musical knowledge.

Two years into my college career as a classical voice major, I realized that though I so enjoyed learning the mechanics of singing Mozart arias in Italian and German and French art songs, there was part of my heart that was missing. It missed those old standards. I then made a decision to switch tracks and focus on diving deep into the Great American Songbook. I would also learn more modern jazz, and developed an affinity for Brazilian bossa nova, particularly the prolific work of Antonio Carlos Jobim. I studied under some truly great teachers, who were also the best musicians I’d ever met - Frank Sumares, pianist, Aaron Lington, saxophonist and Anne-Marie Katemopoulos, vocalist and choral director. I learned about song form, harmonic progressions, arrangement and, of course, improvisation. I learned how to work with a band, make charts, run rehearsals, plan recitals and got some good experience performing live, both in concerts, festivals and jazz jams.

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Since graduating with my Bachelor of Arts degree in Jazz Studies from San Jose State University, I have explored more musical endeavors, from fronting cover bands to writing my own original music. Over the years I sang some popular standards during the occasional wedding, but I realized I really needed to get back to my roots and keep jazz alive in my heart as well as in the world. Singing and playing jazz only makes me a stronger overall musician.

I was fortunate to receive a message from a great local pianist, Mike Finkel, inviting me to sing with his trio at Henry’s Majestic. I shot him a list of 45-some odd songs I knew with my keys, and would show up on the night of the gig to sing with him and two musicians I’d never met. It had been a while since I’ve done this - in true jazz fashion. This is what I’d studied all those years ago, and I was a bit nervous that I would sound rusty.

At the end of the night, I felt satisfied, yet hungry for more. The spontaneity of this music is thrilling and fulfilling. I hope to continue to sing gigs like this on a regular basis to hone and maintain my chops. Fortunately for me, I will appear again with Mike Finkel’s Trio at Henry’s Majestic this Friday from 7:30-10:30. I hope you’ll join us and share the joy of this music with me!

Zach Balch