Grammy-nominated collective säje takes vocal jazz in new directions Paul Conley Tuesday, October 17, 2023 | Sacramento, CA Listen / Update RequiredTo play audio, update browser or Flash plugin. Vocal jazz quartet säje.Courtesy of the artist Imagine forming a new musical group, releasing your first single and picking up a Grammy nomination in the best arrangement for instruments and vocals category in the process. That’s what happened to the vocal ensemble säje (rhymes with “beige”) in 2020. Säje is derived from the first names of the group’s four members. “S” stands for Sara Gazarek, who says they submitted the group’s original “Desert Song” for Grammy consideration almost on a whim. “It was one song on Spotify. We were without a record label. We didn’t have a manager. It was kind of a shot in the dark but, you know, it’s an honor,” she said. “Specifically in that category where arrangers are screening, and they decide which songs they think deserve the nomination. Most of the other categories are [won by] popular vote where kinda anyone can weigh in. So [it] definitely meant a lot to receive a nomination in that category.” Although säje might be considered something of an overnight success, the members all have established solo careers. Gazarek herself has a pair of Grammy nominations and a stack of solo albums. She says joining up with Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick, and Erin Bentlage happened organically and has resulted in a distinctive sound and approach. “The way that Amanda and Erin and Johnaye and I inhabit the vocal ensemble world, rooted in the jazz tradition, I think is pretty different than the trajectory of large vocal jazz ensemble music, using chord structures or harmonies that aren’t typically associated with that genre, or textures in our voices, changing the quality of the diction that we’re using in certain places,” Gazarek said. “There’s a real attention to detail in the same way that you might have in a solo jazz vocalist in terms of the spectrum of things that we’re able to call upon.” Outside of academic situations, Gazarek said she hadn’t really sung in vocal ensembles until säje. She says being in the group requires her to exercise different musical muscles. “As a jazz vocalist, as a soloist, you have complete freedom to pick and choose what it is you want to do in any given moment in terms of phrasing and diction and tone and texture, rhythm and melody,” she said. “In ensemble music it’s like chamber music. You have to have incredible intention and things are meant to be very specific. So it’s forced me to have a certain command of my instrument that I don’t know that I had before.” As a collective, säje has the freedom to guide their own course and create meaningful music of their choosing. “It was just the freedom that we felt in looking around the room and recognizing that there wasn’t any kind of wall or barrier that we had to put up … in a room that is inherently populated predominantly by men,” she said. “That happens in music academia, in the music industry. And so it was exciting and thrilling to be able to create without any kind of concern about misinterpretations, or making sure that we were representing ourselves, or making sure that we were standing up to whatever expectation there was for us. We didn’t have an expectation.” Säje has a diverse repertoire. They’ve applied their singular sound to music by Joni Mitchell, YEBBA, The Bad Plus and Dolly Parton. And you might find something of a recurring theme in their setlists, which often feature songs written by women. “I don’t think that we seek out female composers. I think that we just seek out songs that mean something and it happens to be that the songs that we think mean something often are written by women,” says Gazarek with a bit of a chuckle. Säje performs at The Sophia in Midtown Sacramento on Tuesday, Oct. 17th.