Pronounced like beige, the vocal quartet säje is anything but bland. Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage formed the group in 2019 and are forging a new path and taking the vocal jazz ensemble into the 21st century. KNKX jazz host Abe Beeson spoke with the talented women about their unique style and the excitement of being nominated for a Grammy Award.
“We were talking after the show, and she threw out the idea of putting together a female vocal ensemble," Taylor says. "I was like, ‘Absolutely. I want to do that with you!’ ”
The two were friends with Bentlage, and Gazarek suggested bringing in Tacoma-via-New Orleans singer Kendrick. The next step was a weeklong retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., to test the musical chemistry of these four talents.
Bentlage says they expected to spend each day with “a warmup, some vocal improvisation and then a songwriting session, and then we’ll do an arranging session, then prepare dinner, and then we’ll go back and do more rehearsal.”
As it turns out, they spent their time more casually.
“There was a lot of drinking, a lot of pool time,” Bentlage explains.
“We’d never been in the same space with all four women at the same time," Gazarek adds. "So just to process the magnitude of that dynamic, getting to know one another, it was exactly what needed to happen.”
They did get some work done, including the first säje song and subject of their Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals.
“Desert Song” was derived by Gazarek from the feeling of sharing that space with three powerful and talented women in Palm Springs. She told me, “We all articulated the sense of freedom and power we felt in being surrounded by femininity, without even processing that was something we wanted or needed.”
As female musicians, they all dealt with the fact that they were in a tiny minority of women in their competitive field.
Gazarek says the concept was inspired by looking out at the Palm Springs desert and playing with the idea of “the ocean is where the power was and where peace was, but the desert was where the lifeforce comes from.”
Kendrick was a key contributor, coming up with the lovely, tripping vocal melody at the heart of “Desert Song.”
“I had never written with anyone before, and I remember feeling very awkward," she says. "I kind of nervously threw the melody out, and the response and the love and openness made it easy for me to be open. Everything just flowed from there.”
To be sure, the four voices intertwined on “Desert Song” sound as natural as instruments in a quartet, but the process of combining them is much different.
Bentlage and Taylor are the group’s arranging specialists.
“We came to a realization (writing 'Desert Song') that we need to each sing as part of the whole,” Bentlage tells me. “It was a cool experience!”
She continues: “It’s almost more writing for a string quartet, in a way. We have to consider articulation, vibrato, fall-off … name that vocal texture detail, we’re very specific about it.”
For fans of vocal jazz groups, säje finds inspiration from the Manhattan Transfer and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, but their kind of vocal jazz belongs to the new century.
Along with their own compositions, säje performs insightful arrangements of music by Stevie Wonder, Bjork, India.Arie and The Bad Plus.
"Maybe we get it from ourselves?" Taylor says of their inspiration. "The more we create together, the more we find what we love most about each other’s voices. … We can just write to expose those things and bring those things out within every arrangement.”
This is perhaps the key to the säje magic; they’re empowered by the group. Throughout our conversation, the four women used words like “powerful,” “beautiful,” “special” and “trust” often and talked their artistic love and respect for each other.
That shared love exploded Nov. 24 when the women received their Grammy nomination. I asked them about the moment, video of which they shared on their Facebook page.
Johnaye Kendrick: “I called my husband immediately! He was supposed to be working from home! I’m still processing, still in shock. I keep forgetting and he’ll remind me, ‘Hey, do you remember when you got nominated for a Grammy?’ and it keeps happening!”
Erin Bentlage: “I was so not expecting it. In that moment, I was so grateful to be teamed up with these three women. We have this relationship with each other that’s like, we can say to each other ‘Why not go for it?’ It was a revelation, like, ‘You are allowed to be hopeful for big things.’ ”
Amanda Taylor: “It’s further affirmation that what we’re doing is important, not only for us personally but for other people. We should continue exploring that and living in that love space.”
Sara Gazarek: “My first Grammy nomination (for 2019 album Thirsty Ghost) was a shock. This time, I feel like I watched three people who I adore and am incredibly inspired by receive the recognition they so aptly deserve. It was like a pride explosion!”
They’ve tried to make the most of the pandemic shutdown. Gazarek says they’ve been writing, arranging and thinking about an album. She says the women are talking about producers, engineers and labels they’d like to work with.
“We’re in exploration mode," Gazarek says. "At the moment we’re not quite there, but pretty soon.”
The attention they’ll receive at the Grammys March 14 could be just the bump needed to set things in motion for an album later this year. 2021 is coming together nicely for säje.