There aren’t a whole lot of places in Orange County that come to mind when one is in the mood for some live jazz. Fortunately for Irvine residents, there’s a new hot spot in the neighborhood. SoCal Jazz Academy has begun a weekly series, called Friday Night Live Jazz, at OC Fish Grill. This series is the latest step in Dr. Karim Yengsep’s mission to champion a world-class jazz community in Southern California. As the event’s organizer and founder / director of SoCal Jazz Academy, bassist and educator Dr. Yengsep’s new performance series not only features a rotating roster of accomplished musicians performing first-rate jazz sets, but the series also serves as an opportunity for his academy’s students to showcase their skills and sit in with pros in a concert setting.

When this reporter went to check out the show on Aug. 13, it seemed as though news had already spread. The place was packed. The quartet was situated in a corner of the patio’s faux-ivy-draped pergola, and in the minutes before and after the combo promptly began playing, at its 7:30 p.m. start time, employees of OC Fish Grill brought out additional tables and chairs to accommodate the growing number of guests. Throughout the evening, diners soaked in the classy vibes as they enjoyed their meals, wine and the advertised $3 craft beers.

After performing the first set, which lasted over an hour, Dr. Yengsep and his guest players took a break. Following this, students from his academy rotated in to get their taste of the limelight. Notably, the music appreciation did not end at the outskirts of OC Fish Grill. Folks waiting to be seated at the neighboring I Can Barbecue Korean Grill and random passersby also got caught up in the music. At one point, a dog walker was pulled to a halt by his pup, who stood transfixed by the music. That dog knew what was up.

Wendell Kelly (trombone), Tom Cunningham
(trumpet), Michael Le Van (piano), John Rush (drums),
Kairm Yengsep (bass). Photo by Shara Insepova. c. 2021

The road Dr. Yengsep has traveled to make this magic happen has been a very long and deliberate one. Born in Kazakhstan, where he studied music from an early age, Yengsep first came to the U.S. in 2000, at which point he attended several universities, produced the excellent album “Bossa Nuevo” with his ensemble of the same name, and earned his doctorate. Following this, he returned to Kazakhstan, where he taught and held administrative positions at various colleges and universities, while producing dozens of radio essays for Jazz Review, on Kazakh Radio. In recent years, Dr. Yengsep has made his way back to the states and, in 2019, he realized his vision for “creating a community jazz education program that address[es] the needs of … youth and adult learners at the street level.”

Dr. Yengsep explained to Irvine Weekly what it was like to build the momentum that led to all of his accomplishments soon after moving to SoCal, which he did with his family, in 2018. “Most of my life, I was working for hire, and then you’re like, ‘All right, now take your personal finance and invest it into something you believe in: go!’ So it was a very scary time, and especially given the fact that I was not part of the local scene. I actually didn’t know a single jazz musician in the area. And I could see how [my plans] may have come across as kind of like, ‘Wow, man, who is this guy?’ But, you know, that’s the market economy. You just go for it. And I did.”

Very quickly, he began making connections within the local jazz community. “I started building relationships from scratch, just from jam sessions,” Dr. Yengsep explained. “And slowly but surely, the network began expanding, and I was very blessed to meet incredible people who, to this day, I work with most of them.”

’20 Summer Session I at SoCal Jazz Academy. Photo by
Karim Yengsep.

When Dr. Yengsep launched the SoCal Jazz Academy, it was a tough call. “Jazz education is sort of like an underdog in the educational process,” he explained, stressing that most community music schools are not wholly focused on jazz. With a jazz emphasis, the curriculum includes studying improvisation, relevant literature, composers, traditions, etc. And while with such a strategic approach, many would-be students with an interest in certain instruments like violin or styles like rock and roll are not going to be interested, the setting is highly appealing for educators. “They’re amazed at this opportunity… because, ultimately, every jazz educator and music educator wants to connect with students, and if there is this platform, which allows them to meet community members who are studying jazz repertoire, that’s incredible.”

As for the students who love jazz, the progression to begin playing gigs with professional musicians at the Friday Night Live Jazz series is waiting for them. “Every jazz gig would allow you to [rotate] in members of the community, friends of the band, but… the purpose of this series is to allow faculty, friends and specifically students of the academy to come out and play.” He provided an example, “A couple of weeks ago, we had a nine-year-old piano student. She came out and did two songs. Imagine for a nine-year-old to be able to hang with professionals from start to finish – what an incredible opportunity that is for their learning process to see everything in action, everything they’ve learned about the piece, how to improvise, how to listen to other band members, how to finish the song. Really, you learn it on the bandstand.”

Friday Night Live Jazz runs from 7:30 – 10:00 pm on Fridays at OC Fish Grill and is free to diners. To learn more about the SoCal Jazz Academy, including updated information on the Friday Night Jazz line-ups and to RSVP for their free shows, visit their website at www.socaljazz.com/ and follow their social media at Facebook and Instagram.