Wednesday, December 11, 2013
PORTLAND — In the white cinderblock chorus room decorated with posters of Ella Fitzgerald, Cassandra Wilson and the Tower of Power horn section, a poignant breakup ballad by Al Jarreau is coming to a close.
From left, Jake Boyce, Samantha SaVaun and Erin Fitzpatrick rehearse Monday as part of Cheverus High School’s a cappella jazz group Soulstice. The ensemble placed third last year in the Berklee College of Music’s Annual High School Jazz Festival.
Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer
Rehearsing Monday for the Berklee jazz competition are Soulstice members, from left, Nathan Caso, Christian Cilley, Jake Boyce, Bobbiellah Andoh, Samantha SaVaun and Erin Fitzpatrick. The competition in Boston on Saturday is free and open to the public.
Joining the dulcet tones of six singers -- one voicing a bass line and others harmonizing to support the lead vocals of Cheverus High School senior Jake Boyce -- comes the surprising ring tone of an unseen cellphone belonging to Bobbiellah Andoh. The ring tone repeats "How to Love" by Lil Wayne.
Boyce blows the next line, substituting "desperately" for "tenderly," but they all hold it together for a sweetly delicate ending that gives the song its title, "Not Like This."
After a beat or two of silence, the teenagers dissolve into laughter. Boyce wonders aloud how he came up with "desperately."
"This is a sad song," says Samantha SaVaun, a junior, "but I was cracking up."
So goes the final rehearsal for Soulstice, an a cappella jazz ensemble at Cheverus High, before the group performs in the Berklee College of Music's 44th annual High School Jazz Festival on Saturday in Boston. More than 3,000 student performers and 200 bands and vocal ensembles from across North America will compete for $175,000 in scholarships to Berklee's five-week summer performance program.
Every session will be free and open to the public. They will run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hynes Convention Center on Boylston Street, with a winners showcase concert scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
A year ago, Soulstice placed third and earned Cheverus a scholarship that junior Drew Harmon, who is not in the group, used to attend a percussion camp. A group from South Portland High, in the large-ensemble division, also placed third, and students from Waynflete School (drummer Sam Hansen) and Cheverus (singer Rae Hawkinson) took outstanding-musicianship awards.
In all, groups representing 19 Maine high schools will take part in the festival. Westbrook, Old Orchard Beach and Fryeburg Academy have been regulars for 20 years and more. Regardless of placement, each group gets feedback and a written critique from a Berklee faculty member.
Chris Humphrey, who has been the band director at Cheverus for the past decade, said this is the sixth year in which Cheverus has competed in the festival, and only the second with an a cappella group. Soulstice was formed last year, and Boyce and Andoh are the only holdovers.
"Until last year, we never placed higher than ninth," Humphrey said, "but once we made the move to a cappella, things kind of took off and we made the move up to third place."
Humphrey said this year's group is even stronger. In addition to Boyce, Andoh and SaVaun, juniors Erin Fitzpatrick and Nathan Caso and sophomore Christian Cilley complete the sextet. Caso sings the bass lines and Cilley provides vocal percussion, which, he said, sounds better than beat boxing, a term associated with rap music.
"Vocal percussion," Cilley said, "makes it sound hard."
"It IS hard," chimed in Boyce, who handled that role last year. "It's not something that's easy to do."
In addition to "Not Like This," Soulstice plans to perform interpretations of "Life's Too Good to Sing the Blues" by Sixth Wave, "Minute by Minute" by The Doobie Brothers and "Put Your Records On" by Corinne Bailey Rae.
The group's diverse members harmonize in ways that go beyond song. They describe a kinship born from early-morning practices and a shared love of jazz.
"I don't want to sound cheesy here, but I feel like Soulstice is a family," said Andoh, who sings the silky lead on "Life's Too Good" and "Put Your Records On," and who will meet the rest of the group in Boston on Saturday after attending a Model United Nations conference in New York City this week. "We have such a great time together. We make each other laugh. At the same time, we critique each other. We say, look, here's what we can improve on."
After learning 12 songs and memorizing more than 100 pages of music, the members of Soulstice plan to record a CD this spring, after the festival and after they defend their state title in the Maine State Vocal Jazz Festival later this month in Ellsworth.
"They're doing the most challenging music I've ever programmed," said Humphrey, who has taught music for 26 years, including eight at the University of New Hampshire. "These four (songs) they're doing for the festival are ridiculously hard."
Cilley, the vocal percussionist who is also a three-sport athlete (soccer, swimming, lacrosse), welcomed the difficulty and the lack of instrumental accompaniment.
"It's fun to be challenged," he said. "You don't want to be able to know how to sing them right off the bat. It's part of the fun, to learn."
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: