Gig Seeker Pro


Los Angeles, California, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2019

Los Angeles, California, United States
Established on Jan, 2019
Band Jazz Folk


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The best kept secret in music


"The Women’s Vocal Jazz Supergroup That’s Redefining The Rules"

It is not common for a nascent ensemble’s first collaborative composition to be nominated for a GRAMMY. Säje is not a common ensemble.

Rhyming with the word “beige,” säje is an artistic acronym for the first names of Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick, and Erin Bentlage, four vocalist/composers who came together in the desert without really knowing what they were getting into and ended up finding a well of inspiration in one another deeper than any of them could have imagined.

Members of the group had collaborated with one another individually—but until they seized a chance opportunity to meet in the California desert, had never all met. “We had this one retreat, and were like, ‘Ok, let’s try this out, hopefully we get along,’” Bentlage recalled, “and then it exploded.”

So what happened? “Nothing happened except for drinking and cooking and laughing and talking and swimming and writing ‘Desert Song,’” Gazarek shared, referring to their first, GRAMMY-nominated, composition. “And this cumulative falling—in love—down this tunnel of, ‘Wow I had no idea, what else is here, how deep does this go?’ There hasn’t been a bottom to the well; it just gets deeper and deeper.”

Gazarek, Taylor, Kendrick, and Bentlage are each widely-hailed composers and performers in their own rights. But being together brought out something new from all of them. “That first original composition,” Gazarek explained about “Desert Song,” “came from recognizing the peace that we felt as four female jazz musician composer-educators who had never before collaborated in a 100% female collaborative experience.” Or as Bentlage described it, it was the collective “oh my God this is what it feels like to be creating with feminine energy in a beautifully accepted form.”

Kendrick elaborated: “We’re taught, as you’re coming up [as an artist], ‘It’s a male-dominated field, you have to be one of the boys, and know how to hang, and what to say, and all of that,’....I didn’t think to immerse myself and surround myself with women.” But, she realized, “It’s amazing to be surrounded by powerful women with endless ideas and the desire to uplift; it has changed our lives.”

One of the things that makes säje so special, according to its members, is how much of the creative process they themselves control, from the mixing to the composing and arranging, to the recording, video editing, and even cover art. “If I were by myself, I wouldn’t necessarily do all the things that I do for säje,” Gazarek noted. But she has been inspired to do more by watching her bandmates reach their fullest potential: “It’s something I’ve never experienced before, and säje continues to teach me.”

It’s clearly working out well for the group. Their latest original composition, “Wisteria,” recently won the grand prize of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the folk category, and is currently up for public voting for the Lennon Award.

Like “Desert Song,” “Wisteria” is also about “feeling so safe that you start to trust and love yourself in a way that you haven’t before, because you feel so wholly loved by the circle you’re in; empowered to grow into your full self because you’re surrounded by this love,” according to Taylor. “Whenever we are talking about what we do next, we are always trying to think about how can we find opportunities for young women to get this experience.”

To grow this loving circle, säje endeavors to open up spaces for other female artists to be highlighted as well, whether onstage or behind the scenes. The only all-female nominee in their GRAMMY category, säje aims to be part of a paradigm shift in the jazz community: “not just that female composers see themselves in this community, but that everyone see them,” Gazarek envisioned.

“I feel very empowered in the context of this group to question: what are the rules, and why do I have to follow them, and if they feel wrong, why do they feel wrong?” Bentlage affirmed. “My experience coming up as a musician was so surrounded by masculine energy, that a lot of times when we’re in a jazz or jazz-adjacent space, it feels difficult to get away from that masculine energy. [If those are] the only examples you have, when you set out to learn something, you’ll unlikely accept things that are in a different direction.”

Part of that shift includes not just the identities of the musicians present but also their approach to music-making. Gazarek admitted that the group had originally made a structured agenda for their desert retreat—but quickly scrapped it when they realized they had an opportunity to “just find each other” instead, and let that depth of vulnerability and connection inspire them to co-create.

“One thing that säje brings is the vocabulary that we’re using, and the complexity that we’re leaning into,” Bentlage explained, “but from the lens of the feminine energy, and that softness and gentleness. We can bring it if we need to, but don’t feel we need to just to prove ourselves. Sometimes people would come to us, and say, ‘I didn’t know you could allow yourself to feel that way onstage, in this sort of a space, in a jazz space.’”

Säje is blazing a new trail for female composers and performers in the jazz world. Rather than being intimidated by the challenge, Gazarek sees the opportunity to write a new narrative from scratch; as she says, “There isn’t anything to hold us back from all the doors being open.” The group is working on a new arrangement these days: a mashup of “Solid Ground” and “Blackbird”—in Gazarek’s words, “A reflection of people who see what is available to me and this is it; but people who have broken past that and are saying to others, ‘Fly; it’s ok to fly.’”

Despite not yet being signed to a record label, Säje is flying high. Kendrick captured the experience most powerfully: “When you see videos of people who are colorblind and they put on those glasses for the first time—and are like ‘WHAAT!?!?’ That’s what a säje rehearsal feels like to me.”

Public voting in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest goes through April 30th. - Forbes

"Vocal quartet säje has Northwest roots and a Grammy nomination"

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.

The first spark of säje was was when Gazarek performed as a special guest with Taylor’s vocal group, Groove for Thought, and the A Cappella Academy in 2019.

“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. - KNKX/NPR


Still working on that hot first release.



The GRAMMY® nominated vocal supergroup, säje (rhymes with “beige”), is
the brainchild of vocalist/composers Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor,
Johnaye Kendrick, and Erin Bentlage. Born out of close friendship and
incredibly deep admiration, these world-renowned artists, composers, and
arrangers have come together to explore, create, and celebrate the
music that moves them. As individuals, each artist has crafted their own
notable solo career, and now are delighted to bring their collective
voices to this union, traversing a vast array of compelling original
material, beloved jazz standards, and contemporary re-imaginings (Alina
Engibaryan, YEBBA, Johnny Cash, etc). After debuting an inspiring and
energized set at the 2020 Jazz Education Network Conference in New
Orleans this last January, säje went on to tour multiple jazz festivals
from January to March, ending in a three-night residency at Sam First in
Los Angeles. säje received their first GRAMMY® nomination in November
of 2020, for their first composition “Desert Song” in the Best
Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals category. Their second original
composition “Wisteria” received the Grand Prize in the John Lennon
Songwriting Contest. The union of säje is rooted in the tradition of
joy, curiosity, lush harmony, heart-felt expression, and profound

Band Members