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Central Washington University

Wildcat Crooners Scale Musical Heights in Groove for Thought

In our exceedingly electronically modified world, where the pure sound of the human voice is often second fiddle to instrumental accompaniment, a cappella groups occupy a unique (and sometimes underappreciated) niche in entertainment. But the jazz vocal group, Groove for Thought just might change all that.

“In the sparkling, lush, harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated arrangements of group member Kelly Kunz, the seven singers merge into one powerhouse unit—whether they’re backed up by excellent keyboard player Nick Moore, or performing sans instruments,” writes Misha Berson of the Seattle Times, about their 2011 concert at Benaroya Hall.

Groove for Thought (GFT) started out in 2000 as a group of friends jamming together in their homes to create vocal music that went far beyond what they could produce in college choirs. As they coalesced more into a formal group, they began performing locally, then regionally, until they made their first national appearance at the American Choral Director’s Association Conference.

Their music received rave reviews and awards almost from the beginning. They won the 2005 National Harmony Sweepstakes Competition and, in 2006, were acknowledged by the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards (CARA) for Best Jazz Song. Since then they have received several more CARAs, for Best Holiday Song in 2011, and again for Best Jazz Song in 2012. They were chosen as Favorite Jazz Group in the 2011 A Cappella Community Awards.

In 2010, GFT was one of 10 vocal groups from around the United States selected to appear on the second season of NBC’s vocal competition show, The Sing-Off. In addition to appearing on four of the show’s five episodes, Groove was featured on The Sing-Off: Harmonies For The Holidays and The Sing-Off: The Best of Season 2. The soundtracks for both shows are available on Epic Records.

The seven, mostly CWU alumni, musicians that form GFT have worked together for more than 10 years, developing magical harmonies that transform classic tunes into jazz masterpieces. The members vary in age and interests, but what binds them together is a passionate love for music, singing, and most of all, singing together.

“As you can see from our degrees, our connection to CWU spans over 30 years,” says Jeff Horenstein, bass. “We have all been shaped in some way by the tradition of excellence in jazz education that really started with John Moawad. Central has long been a nurturing environment for jazz educators and performers alike and we wouldn’t be the musicians we are without our CWU experiences.”

The decades differences in age, unusual in singing groups, all but disappear in GFT.

“We all learn a great deal from each other, regardless of our varied ages. We don’t really think much about it,” continues Horenstein. “We all just try to bring our own musical experiences to the table and work together to create something unique.”

Two of the members have a little more than musical ability in common—group founder Kelly Kunz, who sings baritone and tenor, and his daughter, Amanda, the lead soprano.

Kelly earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Central. He currently teaches audio production and music theory at Bellevue College. Kelly also works on the staff for the ensemble vocal performance group Vocalpoint! Seattle. In addition, Kelly just started a new vocal jazz group for college graduates and other young vocalists looking for opportunities to sing jazz.  Many members of this new group are also recent CWU graduates.

Over the years, Kelly has developed a reputation as one of the finest vocal jazz directors in the country. A life-long musician—at three-years-old, he sang while his father accompanied him on the piano—Kelly plays numerous instruments, primarily electric bass, and has played all types of genres, including jazz, Latin, pop, and rock.

And just as he had a significant connection to his father through music, through GFT, Kelly has a similar connection with his daughter.

“It’s truly amazing when you and your child share a love for music and can work together creating and performing,” adds Kunz. “At home she’s my daughter, but when we’re in the group, she becomes a colleague and fellow singer. Her maturity as a performer, musician, and songwriter continues to delight and amaze me.”

Amanda, who, like dad has been singing and playing music most of her young life, joined the group in 2009, when she was 16, after many years of performing in award-winning groups such as the Seattle Youth Symphony and Seattle Girls’ Choir, with which she traveled internationally. While a high school freshman, she took college level music courses and sang in Pierce College’s award-winning vocal jazz group, Farwest Jazz. As a junior, she was accepted into the Grammy Jazz Choir, and was flown to Los Angeles to perform during Grammy week, which included performances at the Blue Note Records party and the Grammy Celebration After Party.

A songwriter since she was very young, Amanda received her bachelor’s of music in composition this spring, and plans to pursue a master’s of music in film scoring at the University of Southern California. She completed her debut solo album, Pieces of my Heart, a collection of original songs, in 2011.

Earlier this year, she won Opus 7’s 2012-13 Student Choral Composition Contest. Her winning piece, “A Single Rose,” scored for women’s choir, was performed in Opus 7’s All Northwest Concert at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle in May. This competition featured students throughout the Northwest, including Alaska.

“Working with my dad in a setting like this seems completely natural. He’s always been involved in my musical development, obviously from a parental standpoint, but also as my director in multiple groups,” notes Amanda. “When I graduated from those groups, it was such an exciting idea to be able to sing with one of the best musicians I know of, and one of my favorite people.

“People ask sometimes what it feels like to be the youngest member of the group . . . honestly, that’s not something I ever really have to think about. We get together once a week, we work to make good music, and we have a blast on stage. They’re my peers and my friends, and that’s about all there is to it.”

GFT will release a Christmas CD this fall, and the group will be celebrating its release with a performance at Seattle’s Jazz Alley on December 26.

Many GFT members are music teachers, have teaching degrees, and view music education as a valuable component in their daily lives. They enjoy “inspiring and empowering young people in a unique and important way.”

In addition to performances, the group presents workshops, clinics, and master classes at conferences and symposiums around the world. They also teach at high schools, colleges, universities, and conservatories throughout the United States.

GFT may be contacted to give workshops on a variety of topics, such as arranging, vocal technique, recording, the music business, and improvisation. They can even tailor a workshop or symposium to meet individual needs. For more information about their educational offerings, contact Brennan Baglio, 425-243-2438, brennan@grooveforthought.com

You can see and hear GFT performing here.

Photo courtesy of Groove for Thought