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Maple Jam: Vermont’s own jazz a cappella group

VERMONT — During her 40-minute commute from Vergennes to Shelburne, Karen Chickering sings. A soprano for Vermont’s one and only jazz a cappella group, called Maple Jam, the drive offers her an ideal window of time to perfect her part before weekly rehearsal.
Chickering said she doesn’t care who’s watching.
“I don’t notice,” she said, smiling. “Both hands are on the wheel.”
The popularity of a cappella has budded in recent years, with shows like “The Sing-Off,” an American Idol-esque reality show, and films like “Pitch Perfect” having captured the attention of millions. Pentatonix, an a cappella group that got its start from “The Sing-Off,” is among the top 20 most heavily followed channels on YouTube.
But Maple Jam’s style differs vastly from these groups, which focus mostly on pop and show tunes. With seven out of eight of its members hailing from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Maple Jam is firmly grounded in classical knowledge and has been bringing close-harmony and jazz to venues around Vermont since 2004.
“It’s very different than what most people do,” Chickering said. “What we do is very uncommon. So people are taken by surprise and frequently blown away, which makes us feel happy.”
Maple Jam has pulled inspiration from groups like The Swingle Singers, a renowned group based in classical music that was founded in Paris in the ’60s, and is now based out of London. The Vermont group had the chance to sing with the Swingle Singers at a music festival in Toronto.
“When we grow up, we want to be just like them,” Chickering said.
Maple Jam’s a cappella focuses on incorporating the sounds of jazz — instruments included — into multi-part songs. The group includes a vocal percussionist, a vocal trombone imitator, and Chickering “plays” the trumpet.
Sitting at a booth in a Shelburne pizzeria, she demonstrated. Lips pursed to the right, she puffed high-pitched sounds out of her mouth in bursts, sounding — uncannily — like a trumpet.
The melodies and instrument interpretations are accompanied by subtle choreography: a move to the front of the stage during a solo or a playful interaction between two members. In this way, Chickering said, the group has evolved since their inception.
“Our first concert was 13 of us, all lined up with our music stands, standing in front of the church and not moving,” she said. “We had a ways to go. And we have come a long way, baby.”
Chickering has been singing, her mom tells her, since she was in a play pen, and Maple Jam’s low bass, Jose Schmidt, has been singing since he was a child growing up in Argentina, where he also studied piano and played violin.
“I was in the conservatory in Argentina,” he said. “The choir was where all the cute girls went.”
Schmidt had a role in the effort to found Maple Jam. Though someone elseofficially started the group, Schmidt urged him to follow through.
After a few bumps in leadership and a slight drop in membership, Maple Jam became a “democratic” group.
“We don’t have a leader,” Chickering said. “We all have input, we all decide. Someone usually takes ownership of a song, and they usually direct it, but we try very hard to have it be a very easy process.”
Chickering and Schmidt agreed, the easy-going process promotes a friendly atmosphere within the group.
“We all still talk to each other,” Chickering said. “We genuinely love being together.”
“Basically, this is something that we do for fun,” Schmidt added. “We love the music, and we want to share it with our audience.”
Maple Jam’s next scheduled show will take place at Brandon Music on Dec. 17. The group performs about 12 times per year, breaking performances into chunks to give them time to learn and integrate new material. Their shows pop up around the state in the fall, around the winter holidays, and in the spring and summer. Audiences range from an intimate group of 40 to a packed church on New Year’s Eve and include a diverse range of listeners.
“When we have youngsters, they really dig it, because they have never heard it before,” Schmidt said. “A lot of the older people come because they’re hearing what they grew up with. They like the novelty of listening to familiar melodies in a new setting. You see them smiling and singing along, and you see them remembering.”
With residences in Argentina, Canada and the U.S., Schmidt feels Vermont is the perfect location for the group.
“What you notice about Vermont when you come here from other places is that people choose to live (here),” he said. “They come here because they like the lifestyle. They’re not trying to make the big bucks — they can do fun things, get involved in community, sing, hike.”
Chickering likes to bike. She once biked all the way from Burlington to Middlebury to get to a rehearsal.
“All the way practicing the trumpet,” Schmidt said.
Maple Jam performs live at Brandon Music on Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m. Concert tickets are $20. For more info, go to www.brandon-music.net.¨  Maplejam.com has information about events, samples of songs and contact information for booking inquiries.

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