April 4, 2019

MSM Spotlight:
Jazz saxophonist Austin Zhang (BM ’21) and jazz vocalist Julia Keefe (MM ’19)


Jazz vocalist Julia Keefe and jazz saxophonist Austin Zhang are performers in the upcoming Manhattan Sings! concerts at Harlem Stage on April 5, and at Dizzy’s Jazz Club Coca-Cola on April 8. This special concert brings together the MSM Jazz Orchestra and MSM jazz vocalists, under the direction of Grammy-winning composer, pianist, and arranger, Jim McNeely.

Julia and Austin explain why the songs in this concert are so meaningful to them, and why this performance is an important milestone for MSM Jazz Arts.

You’re both performing in the upcoming Manhattan Sings! concerts. Tell us about the event and what you’re most looking forward to.

Austin: We’re doing a concert featuring jazz vocalists at MSM performing with the MSM Jazz Orchestra, and I’m super excited about it! It’s not just one vocalist being featured, but nearly the full dozen vocalists in MSM’s Jazz Arts program. This makes it a super diverse program of music, led by the great Jim McNeely, who did all the arrangements for the concert.  He’s one of the most legendary orchestrators, composers, and arrangers, both today and in jazz history! Stefon Harris and others in the Jazz department worked with Jim on the song selections for this show. You’re getting the best of Jim McNeely and our jazz department in a single concert — we’re all excited about it.

Julia: We’re doing some amazing tunes that I’ve always loved. This is my favorite thing about the program. What’s great is many of these arrangements were written specifically for certain vocalists. For example, for Gretchen Parlato or for Luciana Souza — I remember listening to these on YouTube thinking, “these sound so amazing, singing with big bands is simply magical.” It is so great having Jim McNeely as a resource and conductor, with his arrangements… these are iconic for jazz vocalists.

Austin Zhang, Jazz Saxophone (BM '21) (left), Julia Keefe, Jazz Voice (MM '19). Photos by Toby Winarto, Viola (BM '19)

What’s your favorite song in this concert and why?

Julia: There’s a song called Butterfly that one of the vocalists is doing that is really ornate and beautiful. I personally feel very privileged to sing Waters of March, which was arranged for Luciana Souza. It’s one of my favorite tunes — to sing this particular arrangement is a great honor.

Austin: I’m also really partial to Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly because I’m from Dallas and the neo-soul scene in Dallas is huge, it’s absolutely huge. Snarky Puppy came out of that area, so did others like Erykah Badu and Norah Jones… so I definitely grew up listening to that song. I’ve heard Gretchen Parlato’s version of it many times in high school and middle school, and now we’re playing it! Sabath Perez who is performing it with us is a beautiful vocalist, she has great rhythm and feel, and she’s making it her own, so it doesn’t sound like Gretchen’s version. It’s a different thing.

How do you feel about this being the first major concert that the MSM jazz voice program and MSM Jazz Orchestra have done together?

Julia: We did a tribute to Quincy Jones last fall, and that was really, really awesome. There’s been a change to the MSM Jazz Vocal program this year — there were only two of us last year, and now we are seven. This concert in particular is very much highlighting individual vocalists on these songs, which is basically a way of saying, “this is the Jazz Vocal program, here are our students, and here is the Jazz program, and everything amazing that we have to offer.” It’s great.

“Listeners are going to experience something really profound in this concert… we’re telling very, beautiful, sensitive stories, set to beautiful music, arranged by Jim McNeely.”

MSM jazz vocalist

If you guys had 30 seconds to explain to people why they should come to these shows, what would you say?

Austin: My first thought is that Manhattan School of Music, for me, has the most special and unique jazz program in the world. What Stefon Harris has done with the program since he took over last year, musically, there’s nothing like it anywhere — not just this concert, but all the combos we have and the way they are selecting people to get into the program. This jazz vocal concert with the MSM Jazz Orchestra is cutting edge, it’s brand new, even for us. For me, it’s different than any college big band concert or jazz concert you’re likely to see because of the visionary backing up the concepts, and you have a dozen vocalists singing all types of music. This concert is not one you’re likely to hear in many large, commercial venues — it takes a school with this kind of unique vision to present it.

Julia: I agree. What’s also impressive is Stefon’s vision as a musician is very much based in empathy. For musicians, it’s all about the human experience, and as an individual, you have a very unique, human, yet universal story to tell, and I feel that this is what this concert does. As vocalists we have something that’s very unique to us, we have lyrics to tell specific stories set to amazing arrangements, and with this backbone of empathy, you get a very raw, visceral, musical experience. Every musician taking part is coming from this place of empathy, instilled in us by Stefon, a sense of openness and connection, a feeling of “I’m here with you.” The question, in a way, becomes, how do we tell this story, our story, these people’s stories, in a way that unites us all?

With the Manhattan Sings! concert, listeners are going to experience something really profound: The coming together of all aspects of the Jazz Arts Program, and we’re telling very beautiful, sensitive stories, set to beautiful music, arranged by Jim McNeely.

MSM Jazz Orchestra and jazz vocalists in rehearsal