Music News & Reviews

SLO church’s Jazz Vespers concerts offer music in sacred space

Pianist George Garcia will perform with The G2 Project on Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of San Luis Obispo as part of the Jazz Vespers concert series.
Pianist George Garcia will perform with The G2 Project on Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of San Luis Obispo as part of the Jazz Vespers concert series.

Attracting audience members can be a conundrum for any concert producer. But for Craig Updegrove, who organizes the Jazz Vespers concert series, the challenge is more complex.

“They literally hesitate at the back door” of First Presbyterian Church of San Luis Obispo, unsure whether they should step into the sanctuary, Updegrove said with a chuckle. “(They ask) ‘Am I in the right place?’ We reassure them that they are, and (that) they can leave any time they want to.”

Held on a quarterly basis at the church in downtown San Luis Obispo, the free concert series seeks to present jazz in a warm, welcoming space that’s primed for quiet contemplation.

On Sunday, jazz trio The G2 Project — featuring pianist George Garcia, bassist Keegan Harshman and drummer Darrell Voss — will perform a mix of sacred and secular songs at the church as part of Jazz Vespers. The series continues July 10 with the John Knutson Trio.

Each performance will be followed by a reception where audience members can chat, meet the musicians and enjoy food and drinks.

“It’s another musical offering to open up the church to the local community,” said Updegrove, noting that First Presbyterian Church has hosted the monthly Brown Bag concert series for a number of years. It launched a regular organ recital series about five years ago.

The Jazz Vespers series started in August 2015 with a performance by the Royal Garden Swing Orchestra. Past acts have included the Judy Philbin Trio and Brett and Julia Mitchell.

The Jazz Vespers concert series at First Presbyterian Church of San Luis Obispo provides music and inspiration in a sacred space. Here's a sampling of songs from previous performances.

Although the series started in the church’s fellowship hall, it’s since moved to the impressive stone sanctuary. (Completed in 1905, it features granite quarried from Bishop Peak.)

“It just has an atmosphere and a vibe that’s conducive” to reflection and meditation, Updegrove said.

According to Updegrove, president of the San Luis Obispo County Jazz Federation, the Jazz Vespers series is part of a decades-old tradition of jazz in sacred spaces popularized by the likes of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Mary Lou Williams. He cites Ellington’s song “Come Sunday,” which can be found in the United Methodist Hymnal, as a prime example of that musical merging.

First Presbyterian Church has held several morning worship series featuring jazz music.

“Jazz really does a great job of expressing the human experience … in a way that transcends the written word,” Updegrove said. “It opens things up to a wide range of emotions and states of meditation.”

“It just lends itself to a contemplative kind of experience,” he added.

He also pointed to jazz’s emphasis on improvisation and creativity, which has parallels in the spiritual sphere.

“You and the other musicians are creating something new and hopefully inspired, something that will connect with people,” Updegrove said.

Jazz Vespers concerts tend to feature tunes that are “more reflective, spiritual, contemplative, joyful, positive,” he said.

He encourages musicians to play songs “that they think will inspire others or bring peace to others. It won’t be the typical thing that they’d play in another concert or gig.”

Sunday’s instrumental program includes such familiar favorites as “Amazing Grace,” “A Child Is Born” and “Jesus Loves Me,” as well as jazz standards “Time Remembered” and “Whisper Not.” The G2 Project may also put its own spin on some hymns or gospel songs.

In addition, First Presbyterian Church pastor Dennis Falasco gives a brief talk, as he does at each Jazz Vespers concert.

Updegrove is quick to point out that the message is “not meant to be proselytizing.”

“We’ve tried to keep it not religious or churchy,” he said. Rather, the concert organizer explained, the goal is to be “accessible and open to people, whatever they’re bringing in in terms of their faith or beliefs.”

The G2 Project

4 p.m. Sunday

First Presbyterian Church of San Luis Obispo, 981 Marsh St., San Luis Obispo

Free, donations appreciated

3-5451 or