Jazz in varied forms: Valley Jazz Voices stages virtual concert, with a livestreamed segment by guest artist Karrin Allyson

  • Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, pianist and composer Karrin Allyson will join Valley Jazz Voices for a combined virtual and livestreamed show at 7 p.m. Sunday. CONTRIBUTED/Jim O’Keefe

  • Valley Jazz Voices will offer its first virtual concert May 2 at 7 p.m., at which they’ll he joined by jazz singer and composer Karrin Allyson. Gazette file photo

  • Conway native Marty Jaffe, now living in New York City, will be part of the May 2 virtual show by Valley Jazz Voices. Photo by Hey Liv Media

  • Valley Jazz Voices, like so many other musical ensembles, has been meeting on Zoom for the past year; singers practice and record their individual parts at home. Image courtesy Ruth Griggs

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2021

Like any number of vocal groups and large instrumental ensembles, the members of Valley Jazz Voices (VJV) found themselves initially stymied when COVID-19 arrived in the area early last year and they were no longer able to rehearse or perform in person.

And switching rehearsals to Zoom, even if people could be together on computer screens, provided no quick panacea for the organization. The lag time between individual computers meant members couldn’t sing together; they could discuss their music with Director Jeff Olmsted, they could practice their parts individually, but putting the music together was a separate challenge.

But more than a year into the pandemic, VJV has met that challenge. The group will present its first virtual concert, “Some of that Sunshine,” on Sunday, May 2 at 7 p.m., and they’ll be joined by Grammy-nominated composer and singer Karrin Allyson on one of their songs, while Allyson will offer a livestreamed segment of her own at the show, a performance at which she’ll be joined by her frequent bass player, Valley native Marty Jaffe.

Valley Jazz Voices, the largest jazz vocal ensemble in western Massachusetts, sings a mix of jazz standards, Brazilian, swing, and other styles, including original arrangements by Olmsted and the group’s pianist, James Argiro. The community group, which includes 25 to 30 members from the region, now has a few additional singers from outside the state who have joined the weekly Zoom-based rehearsals during the past year.

Olmsted, in a phone call, joked that he’s become a video producer and much as music director during the pandemic. To help singers learn their parts for new music, he records guide videos that include the vocal track as well as an image of sheet music, showing the actual notes of the part. Singers learn these new tracks on their own, video record their vocals at home, and send them to Olmsted. Then he stitches the tracks together and melds them with instrumental backing for a finished recording.

“It’s a fair amount of work,” he said. “I’m putting together guide videos for three different levels of voice, then I’ve got to get all the [finished] individual tracks synced up with the instrumental parts. I’ve had to teach myself how to do all this, which is the same situation choral directors everywhere have faced.”

“But keeping busy like this is how I kept from doing nothing and going crazy in the past year,” he added with a laugh. He’s also used time during Zoom rehearsals to examine jazz theory and history with VJV members and to explain vocal and digital recording techniques for their music.

The roughly hourlong concert on Sunday will be split roughly halfway between some new material VJV has developed and the set by Allyson, though Allyson will also sing one of her original compositions, “Some of that Sunshine,” with backing by Valley Jazz Voices in an arrangement Olmsted did for the song.

Gisele Litalien, a Valley Jazz Voices member from Conway, suggested collaborating with Allyson for the show: Jaffe, Allyson’s frequent bass player, is Litalien’s son (he’s now based in New York City).

In addition, Allyson, who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in New York, has a second home in North Hadley and spends some time in the Valley when not on tour; she’s performed a number of gigs in the area over the years, including at the North Hadley Congregational Church.

Ruth Griggs, another member of VJV and the president of the Northampton Jazz Festival, said in an email that Allyson has made close connections to a number of other jazz performers in the area and “sings here when she can for various groups/causes/venues…. She has a strong sense and love of community and it really plays out beautifully for us and for us here in the Pioneer Valley.”

Allyson, who did a virtual performance earlier this year for an arts series produced by Easthampton City Arts, is a five-time Grammy nominee and has received many other accolades for her singing, piano playing and composing. The New York Times once called her a “singer with a feline touch and impeccable intonation.” She sings in English, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish; in addition to jazz, her repertoire includes blues, pop, and Broadway show tunes.

Olmsted said he first met Allyson a few years ago when Valley Jazz Voices opened for her at a concert at the Unitarian Society in Northampton. He added that he’s enjoyed working with her remotely for the May 2 concert: “She’s an absolute pro.”

That concert will also include the work of Don Anderson on trumpet, Ron Smith on saxophone, and Argiro on piano. A live chat session with Allyson and the audience will follow the music.

The show is co-produced by Northampton Open Media, which has edited the video segments of the individual singers to “create a cohesive, polished digital concert,” according to program notes.

Northampton Open Media will broadcast the concert on Northampton public access channel 12 and has created broadcast agreements with a dozen other public access channels to air the show, including in Chicopee, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Pittsfield and Springfield. You can watch the concerts as well on Facebook, YouTube or Twitch by going to valleyjazzvoices.org. The music is free, but donations to the group are appreciated.

The program is supported in part by grants from the cultural councils of 21 area communities, as well as the Massachusetts Cultural Council and other sponsors.