When the four members of the vocal supergroup säje got together in Renton at the home of band member Amanda Taylor to rehearse last month, it was the first time in nearly a year they had gotten together. For Taylor and other members of the on-the-rise vocal powerhouse — Tacoma resident Johnaye Kendrick, born-and-bred Seattleite Sara Gazarek and Los Angeles-based Erin Bentlage — the gathering was joyous: a chance to see each other again and to celebrate their Grammy nomination.
The group debuted in January 2020, gathering in the warmth of the California desert in Palm Springs. There they began to write, arrange and rehearse music that fit into their musical vision as an ensemble. The four artists, all noted solo performers, saw their time together strengthen the bonds between them, both in terms of music and friendship. In that brief time, they produced video and audio recordings that included “Desert Song,” a stunning four-part arrangement that is nominated for a Grammy under the category of best arrangement, instrument and vocals. The 63rd annual Grammy Awards, on March 14, will be staged outdoors, according to Variety.
While some might consider Seattle a remote outpost in the jazz world, the city has historically sported an integrated and artistically engaged jazz scene. It started as early as the 1930s, with African American musicians migrating to Seattle to escape the Jim Crow South. Ray Charles was one such artist, finding his way into the industry first as a bebop pianist on the Jackson Street scene in postwar Seattle. A vibrant club scene, fed by lauded programs at local high schools, continues to sustain America’s most original art form in Seattle (at least before the pandemic shutdowns). This year’s Grammy Awards are a testament to that vibrancy, with several jazz artists with Seattle ties among the nominees.
For Gazarek, this is the second consecutive year she has been nominated. In 2020, she was recognized in the same category for her arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” And her self-released album, “Thirsty Ghost,” was also nominated for best jazz vocal album. An alumna of the renowned jazz program at Roosevelt High School under the baton of Scott Brown, Gazarek — who now lives in Los Angeles — seems to be hitting her creative stride after close to 20 years in the business.
Last year, even as the pandemic kept them apart, Gazarek and the other members of säje remained productive, connecting remotely to continue writing, rehearsing and planning. The group is aiming to arrange and record a new song each month, in hopes of having a number to choose from when it’s ready to release an album.
“Fortunately, from the very beginning, we were prepared to create remotely. When the pandemic hit, we had no reason to stop,” recalls Gazarek.
Kendrick, a professor of music at Cornish College of the Arts who shifted to working remotely, says, “It has been challenging to remain motivated from time to time, but our creative output over the past year is due to everyone’s commitment to the group and our music.”
Also up for a Grammy Award — again — is iconic guitarist/composer Bill Frisell, who arrived in Seattle in 1988 and remained until his relatively recent departure to New York. His time spent in Seattle set him on a more eclectic path, influenced strongly by Seattle improvised-music devotees Cuong Vu, Ted Poor and Wayne Horvitz. With six nominations, and a win for his 2004 release, “Unspeakable,” under his belt, this time around, he’s been nominated in the best contemporary instrumental album category for “Americana,” a trio endeavor with pianist Romain Collin and chromatic harmonica virtuoso Grégoire Maret. The album looks at popular American tunes in an abstract light, with Frisell’s gentle, probing genius at the forefront.
Three of the more prominent modern jazz artists to emerge from the Seattle scene in recent years contributed to recordings up for Grammys, too. Pianist Aaron Parks and drummer/vocalist Kassa Overall both appear on “Waiting Game,” the powerful social narrative from Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science that’s up for best jazz instrumental album. Parks left Seattle 20 years ago as a 16-year-old piano prodigy, and is noted as one of the most innovative pianists in jazz today. He currently records for the esteemed Blue Note label. Overall provides stirring spoken word commentary, along with percussive turntable work. His unique skill set as both a jazz drummer and hip-hop artist have deep roots in the Seattle hip-hop community and the nationally acclaimed jazz program at Garfield High School.
Fellow Garfield alum Thomas Marriott, one of Seattle’s most acclaimed and dedicated jazz musicians, appears prominently on Orrin Evans’ “The Intangible Between,” as a member of his Captain Black Big Band. Marriott’s off-the-rails trumpet solo highlights the album’s opus to social justice, “Tough Love.” “The Intangible Between” is up for best large jazz ensemble album.
The Seattle-based jazz label Origin Records can boast nine Grammy nominations since 2003. The indie label — established and operated by Seattle jazz drummers John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen — will be represented this year by nominee Jeremy Levy, whose arrangement of “Uranus: The Magician” is up for best arrangement, instrumental or a cappella.
The Grammy Awards ceremony will air at 5 p.m., March 14, on CBS.