Music News & Reviews

CSUS jazz vocal group poised to soar at Monterey Jazz Festival

C-Sus Voices performs at the Next Generation Jazz Festival competition in 2016.
C-Sus Voices performs at the Next Generation Jazz Festival competition in 2016. Monterey Jazz Festival photo by R. Cole Thompson

Gaw Vang will have a lot to take in this weekend when she leads the California State University, Sacramento, jazz vocal group to the Monterey Jazz Festival.

The ensemble’s director has never been to the longest-running jazz festival in the United States, where 500 artists will perform on eight stages for three nights and two days. This year’s ensemble of 10 CSUS students, called C-Sus Voices, won the honor after beating out groups from around the country in a high-profile competition, a victory that cemented their reputation as one of the nation’s best student jazz vocal groups.

Vang took over the jazz vocal program three years ago after the highly regarded Kerry Marsh, now on the jazz studies faculty at the University of Northern Colorado, built it up over a decade. Vang, who studied under Marsh, has tried to give the program and its ensembles an identity outside of Marsh’s estimable shadow.

“The tone itself is different,” Vang said in a vacant Capistrano Hall practice room. While Marsh was particularly fond of using contemporary music in his repertoire, Vang mixes in more jazz classics.

“I think my sound is a mix of things, (vocal group) New York Voices but not so forward, not so brassy (that) they sound like a horn section,” Vang said. “My students are doing both the New York Voices sound and the spread wispy sound. It’s a mixture.”

The competitive selection process for the festival invitation included submitting a three-song recording, which was adjudicated by a panel of national experts, and then being invited along with five other finalists to compete at the Next Generation Jazz Festival competition in April. For the first time since the college jazz vocal ensemble category was instituted in 2009, CSUS was named the winner for their live performance.

The group’s wide-ranging four-song set at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18, includes “Noticing the Moment,” a reconfiguration by musician-arranger Darmon Meader of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”; “Lace Skull” by the Australian neo-soul band Hiatus Kaiyote, as arranged by Kerry Marsh; “Killing Me Softy,” the classic R&B ballad made famous by Roberta Flack, as arranged by Gene Puerling; and standard “My Favorite Things” arranged by Kelly Kunz. All of the tunes except “My Favorite Things” were performed in competition.

Downbeat magazine, the heartbeat of jazz aficionados, this year named C-Sus Voices the best student vocal jazz ensemble in the country. A sister program, the instrumental Jazz Ensemble I, directed by Steve Roach, got an Outstanding Performance Award.

Though jazz vocals were initially solo endeavors, small groups such as the The Modernaires with Glenn Miller and The Mel-Tones with Artie Shaw became part of big band ensembles as early as the 1930s. The Four Freshmen used wider-ranging open harmonies with big band arrangements, and then the legendary trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross started arranging voices to emulate what were originally horn parts. More modern jazz vocal ensembles include New York Voices, the Manhattan Transfer and Take Six.

Vang said continuity in the program has helped its success.

“I’ve had these students for a while now and last spring I knew they were going to hit because I knew how their voices sounded,” Vang said.

She was able to take time during school breaks to find songs that fit the ensemble, and then in their one-hour class sessions rehearse and refine the material.

“I go in there as the director and need to teach nuance, but I can’t do that if they’re singing the wrong notes,” Vang said. “My first year I just grabbed onto anybody who can sing but now I’ve built it to the point where we can talk about blend, tone, and what vocal jazz sound is supposed to be.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

C-Sus Voices performs at the Monterey Jazz Festival

When: 12:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18

Where: Garden Stage, Monterey County Fairgrounds

More info:

The group will perform at a benefit concert at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 28. Donations are accepted (recipient to be determined).

Another concert will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2. Tickets are $10 general, $7 seniors and $5 students, available at 916-278-4323 or Both concerts will happen at CSUS’ Capistrano Concert Hall.