Daily Editor Lucia Towne attended Uptown Vocal’s Midsemester Cabaret on Saturday, February 25 at 8 pm in the Wien Lounge.

Uptown Vocal, Columbia University’s premier Jazz a cappella group, held their midsemester concert in the Wien Lounge this past Saturday. The performance space was decorated with fake candles complimenting the older lighting fixtures on the wall and creating an overarching warm ambiance. A small subsection of Columbia University’s premier pops orchestra (or Columbia Pops for short) played jazz music as everyone took their seats.

The concert began with a brief introduction by some of Uptown Vocal’s members. They emphasized that half of the evening’s proceeds were being donated to the Jazz Foundation of America which did great work in supporting jazz artists who were out of work due to the pandemic.

This concert included a unique live orchestral element that isn’t often seen in a cappella performances. Save for a few full Uptown Vocal pieces, Columbia Pops accompanied the group in each of their solo vocal pieces. There was even a brief interlude mid-concert where the orchestra performed without Uptown Vocal. The instrumentalists were clearly adept in their understanding of jazz, music theory, and their own personal instruments. Although this was a departure from the standard a cappella performance, it was not unwelcome. The audience grew more and more connected to the music as each piece concluded.

Some stand-out solo performers include Sam Lopez and their rendition of “Misty”. Lopez has a classic crooner’s voice that naturally lends itself to jazz music. “Misty” is a piece that could easily allow a singer’s lower register to come across as drained and washed out in comparison to the wider vocal range the song demands. Lopez’s rendition, however, masterfully blends these contrasting ranges into an altogether cohesive and lovely performance.

Uptown Vocal in action.

Another soloist whose performance demands recognition is Evelyn Perez and their take on Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”. The task of taking a rock song and developing it into a coherent jazz piece is difficult enough, but Perez’s unflinching mixed voice is simply outstanding. Perez also tackled a scatting section with the confidence that is needed to succeed with such an ambitious piece. The knowledge of jazz and musicality that Perez showcased with this solo performance is unparalleled.

After the concert, I spoke with Ella Wickham, the co-business manager of Uptown Vocal. During this conversation, Ella revealed that this cabaret is only the third performance that the group has done with an incorporated instrumental group. Some may argue that the addition of this miniature orchestra is detracting from the original mission of a cappella music. This is clearly not the case with Uptown Vocal. Ella assured me that the subset of Columbia Pops was integrated rather late into the rehearsal period. In fact, they only practiced together twice before the midsemester cabaret. This speaks to the separate groups’ keen ability to find a common space in the music that they share. From an audience’s perspective, Uptown Vocal and Columbia Pops were not compromising their individual musical strengths, but rather joining together their abilities to enhance the overall jazz performance.

After 14 songs, the concert wound to an end. Although I enjoyed this performance, there were some repeated technical issues throughout the cabaret. At times, the singers were overpowered by the volume of the instrumentalists which unfortunately took the audience out of the moment and stole the attention away from the music. This concert would have benefitted from a more comprehensive tech rehearsal prior to the performance. As I previously mentioned, the ability of these well-practiced musicians to compile separate musical elements in such a short time span is admirable, but a closer look at how these components would translate to the audience on a technical basis would have taken this already fantastic performance to another level.

Based on the overall success of this concert and the artful skill that each member clearly possesses, I can confidently say that I, and many others in the audience, are looking forward to what Uptown Vocal has in store for the rest of the semester.

Header via Uptown Vocal Member Lisa Choe

Concert photo via Author