Young jazz musicians compete in Ventura

Rachel Flowers, headshot.
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Rachel Flowers
Rachel Flowers

Rachel Flowers, the winner of the Ventura Music Festival Student Jazz Competition held Sunday at the Laurel Theater in Ventura, was having such a good time, she wanted to keep playing the piano after the contest ended.

Unfortunately, musician Kevin Fukagawa with the jazz group Coda, which backed the young musicians, had another engagement and had to pack the keyboard. Nonetheless, Rachel was all smiles when it was announced that she will not only be receiving a $500 scholarship, but will accompany Latin jazz legend Arturo Sandoval at the upcoming Latin Jazz Concert sponsored by the Ventura Music Festival on Feb. 12.

“I was very happy and excited,” Flowers said about hearing the announcement. “When she said ‘her,’ I knew it was probably me.”

Rachel won second place in last year’s contest.

The five contestants competing in the sixth Student Jazz Competition were chosen as finalists from a field of 18 who submitted recordings. According to Mary Braitman, president-elect and board member of the Ventura Music Festival, the competition is part of the group’s commitment to music outreach. “The education component is one of our essential purposes. The (young people) are the audience of the future,” Braitman said.

The five students each played a piece with local jazz group Coda. According to Charles Levin, a drummer who runs the group, each student ran through his or her piece just once or twice before the contest.

“They are unbelievable. All of them are playing at the professional level,” Levin said.

Dave Robaire on bass joined Levin and Fukagawa as part of Coda.

Flowers, 17, a junior at Hueneme High School, won the contest playing “Naima” on piano. She said she had listened to “Naima” by John Coltrane over the years, although she has just started to add it to her repertoire. Visually impaired, Flowers said she learned the piece by listening to various versions with her music teacher Kyle Norwood.

“She worked very hard,” said her mother, Jeanie Flowers. “She’s not only talented and gifted, but she works very hard. It’s exciting to see her blossom. It’s her time.”

The second-place winner of the contest, winning $250, was Jacob Scesney, 18, who attends the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Scesney played a spirited alto sax version of “The Eternal Triangle” by Sonny Stitt.

Third place went to Tanner Dawson, 17, who played a bluesy tenor sax version of “Record-A-Me” by Joe Henderson.

Also participating in the contest were Cory Smith, 16, from Westlake High School, who played the drums for a rocking rendition of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” which he admitted afterward wasn’t his best performance.

“I was a little nervous and felt I could have soloed better,” he said.

Sara Sithi-Amnuai, 15, a sophomore at the Orange County High School of the arts in Laguna Niguel, performed a resonant flugelhorn version of “Rapture” by Harold Land. She had a philosophical attitude about being the youngest member of the group.

“Every experience is great to learn from,” she said.

The judges for the contest were Jonathan Cooper, Eddie Arkin and Craig Woods, all professional musicians. Cooper and Arkin said it was difficult to decide which musician was the best.

“It was very difficult. There were just a few degrees between players. Rachel took the top spot, but the others were very good,” Cooper said.

Arkin said because jazz is based so much on improvisation, it’s often difficult to make a comparison between performances.

“We try to make the best subjective decision. We are listening to the harmony and improvisation over the times and sense of space in a piece,” Arkin said.

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