After performing in area rock group 91 Proof, George Jacobs (bass) and Eugene Sartor (guitar) decided they wanted to return to their jazz roots and start another group.
“Gene and I actually are in a rock band together although we both are primarily jazz players,” Jacobs said. “We always wanted to start a little jazz thing. So right around the holidays last year, we had some down time with the rock band and thought we would put out some feelers and started trying out some singers.”
So, Jacobs and Sartor, thinking they would form a trio, posted their need for a jazz singer on Craig’s List. In Los Angeles, Danika Toscano found the ad. The life-long California resident was thinking about moving to Las Cruces to join her boyfriend after a 10-month, long-distance relationship and was checking the city out.
“We tried out a lot of people,” Jacobs said. “[Toscano] was the first who actually knew a lot of the songs. These were really popular jazz songs. As far as familiarity with the genre, she was definitely right on it.”
“I really wanted to get out and see what else is out in life,” Toscano said. “When I was a little girl, I really loved jazz.”
She said her father would see her listening to music and say, “Are you ok, Dani?” and she would say, “Yes.”
“Your just over here listening to that suicide music,” her dad said.
“Because it’s very sad,” Toscano said. “I told him, ‘no’ and ‘I love it,’ but I always knew that jazz was just like a part of me. Whenever I would sing on my own or I would improvise, I always naturally used jazz progressions. I was just born that way. The way that my mind wants to put the notes that’s in jazz progressions.”
Toscano was trained in school with choir and was reading music since second grade. In junior and high school, she was in band for five years, playing several different instruments, including clarinet.
Naming some of her favorites, she said she loves to sing Frank Sinatra tunes because she can hear him as she sings.
“So, we do ‘Fly me to the Moon,’ because it’s just one of those things which I listen to a lot – the Frank Sinatra version,” she said. “’Black Coffee’ I think is my favorite, just because I have a personal connection with it. It’s a song I enjoyed singing as karaoke back home. By Sara Vaughn, it’s actually a blues song but we do it in a jazz way.”
The group began practicing as a trio – guitar, bass and vocals – but a couple of things started happening, Jacobs said.
“Dani has a penchant for slow tempos and when a tempo gets slow and you don’t have a percussionist, it gets really challenging,” he said. “Especially for the bass, but also for the guitarist to keep the dynamism there. But the conception was we don’t want to be a loud band.”
They needed a drummer but not a full drum set, not only because they didn’t want to be a loud band, but also because many possible local venues simply did not have the room for full drums.
“We thought if we can bring in a hand percussionist, it will keep with mellow nature of what we are doing and keep the volume down,” Jacobs said.
So, they found Johnny Aviña for hand percussion, and he fills in the percussion gaps with mastery and a solo here and there. He also plays guitar and ukulele as needed.
Wanting another soloist, Jacobs said a saxophone would be a common jazz choice, but the sax is a naturally loud instrument.
“In a trumpet you have more dynamic control,” he said. “I used to play low brass, and there is a reedy edge to a sax that mellows out in a brass instrument, which segues in nicely to what we are trying to do.”
One day in passing, Jacobs asked a woman at his bank if she knew any trumpet players, and she said, “As a matter of fact I do.”
Las Cruces native Michael Martinez is a Mayfield High School graduate with a music degree from New Mexico State University.
“I used to do jam sessions at Mom’s Coffee every Tuesday,” Martinez said. “I had to learn how to play the trumpet a lot quieter because it’s such a small place. Once a month sitting this far away from the audience, I don’t want to give them a haircut, so I had to learn how to play quietly.”
“He is extremely talented,” Toscano said. “As far as switching through the notes and the amount of pressure that he has to put through the instrument, he can get all the different note changes going on off of one slow stream of steady air. It sounds beautiful. If I had known it could be played like that, I would have chosen the trumpet over the clarinet.”
The quintet, called Lush Life, officially started playing local venues in July.
“It has been really nice how everything trickled in,” Toscano said. “It was a natural, organic way for somebody to join the band. It’s been one of the things that kept me in here.”
“We get along really well,” Toscano said. “Musically we are attuned to each other, and it’s just really enjoyable. There is an absence of a lot of the usual band drama, and it’s really cool.”
In addition to jazz standards, Jacobs said, “We throw in some curve balls. We have taken some songs, like blues tunes and a Spanish rock classic, and turned them into jazz.”
They have also been getting out, playing at outdoor venues and are well received. He said they have been welcomed by audiences who have been craving opportunities to get out and do something.
Some samples of Lush Life music can be found at www.reverbnation.com/lushlifequintet/ and they can be found in person Friday, Sept. 4, at NM Vintage Wines and then Saturday, Sept. 12, at Picacho Peak Brewing Company.