Thoughts from Dr. Joe: A house that's constructed of jazz

What is it about that moment we call deja vu? Such moments capture a small measure of time but depict a significant occurrence in one's life, painting a vivid portrait of a past experience.

When I hear Nora Sagal, vocalist for La Cañada's Untouchables, sing “Bye Bye Blackbird,” I take a step back in time. Once again I'm 23, standing in the Starlight Room of the El Cortez hotel in San Diego with a tall bourbon in my hand. In my moment of deja vu I remember Alice Kennah singing, “As Time Goes By.” She would stir the souls of the boys traveling to and from Vietnam. Experiencing such a phenomenon, I realize that when listening to the Untouchables, I'm in the right place at the right time.

Art becomes art when it stirs your emotions. Sagal is a dazzling diamond who takes me back to a sweeter time and leaves a misty eye. She's unforgettable.

The Untouchables got together at the La Cañada Spring Home Tour in 2011. With Matthew Schwartz on sax, Eric Engler on keyboard, Shan Haupt on drums, Josh Spry on bass and Sagal on vocals, the group is know for its bebop style of jazz characterized by a fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity and improvisation. David Siebels, a professional musician, arranges the music and Vickie Schwartz manages. There's something elevating about a bunch of kids playing music together.

The band plays the standards, the songs that are magical and appealing and have endured the test of time.

“What makes a song a standard and why is a standard magical?” I asked.

“It's impossible to describe their appeal and magic,” Spry replied. “If everyone could write a standard, nothing would be a standard.”

Much of the music today is simple, computerized, and not connected to real instruments.

“Our music is complex, artistic, expressive and real,” Sagal said. “When we play a gig, we are locked together, connecting with each other. Jazz gives us freedom to improvise and to express the music the way we feel it.”

The band members describe themselves as a family of musicians. However, each artist brings a separate identity and together, they are the sum of individual instrumentation. “Just like a house,” Matthew Schwartz said.

Haupt on drums and Spry on bass provide the rhythms comprising the foundation of the house. Engler plays keyboard and accompanies the melody played by Schwartz on saxophone. They comprise the walls. Sagal brings the vocals and provides the finishing touches.

When performing, either you have the feeling or you don't. If you have the feeling, performing comes from somewhere down deep. Artists call it soul. The Untouchables are soulful. The soulful part of playing is their passion; and passion creates the mood. Whether you are motivated to get up and dance or just float away to Sagal's sultry rendition of “Fever,” the Untouchables will turn you. They bring out the best in each other. They grab the audience, and after a few bars, all are swaying to their foot-stomping sound.

“After you guys run off to college, how do you think you'll be remembered?” I asked Haupt.

With a casual smile he replied, “We don't expect to be remembered, but we'll remember playing with each other.”

I didn't agree with him, but I kept my opinion to myself. I just couldn't help thinking of Alice Kennah singing, “I'll Be Seeing You,” in the Starlight room of the El Cortez.

It's been 43 years and I can still hear her. You don't forget something like that.

Get in touch

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at doctorjoe@ymail.com. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.

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