PORTLAND, Maine — Area musician and Cheverus High School music director Chris Humphrey has always loved jazz singer Al Jarreau’s “Not Like This,” but he always balked at the vocal complexity of the song.
“It was one of my favorite tunes back in the ’80s,” Humphrey said. “I’ve always wanted to work with a group who could handle it. And this is that group.”
This is Soulstice, not a collection of handpicked veteran vocalists from Humphrey’s travels in the music scene, but six Cheverus singers making up the school’s jazz choir.
On Saturday, the a cappella sextet is one of several Maine groups expected to head to Boston to compete in the Berklee College of Music’s 44th annual High School Jazz Festival. Last year, Humphrey decided for the first time to throw out the instruments and let his singers carry the music, and Soulstice rewarded him by placing third in their division — besting the school’s previous high placement by six spots.
At stake this weekend is $175,000 in scholarships to Berklee camps and programs. Last year’s finish sent the Cheverus contingent home with a camp scholarship.
“[The Berklee festival] is a great experience,” Humphrey said. “It is a competition, but I know they understand my philosophy that competition in music is a bit silly. It’s all subjective.”
However they fare Saturday, Humphrey believes the Berklee competition, which attracts more than 3,000 students making up more than 200 bands and vocal ensembles every year, won’t be the last time Soulstice sees a big crowd.
He said the students plan to record a debut album this spring, and with television singing contests such as NBC’s “The Sing-Off” and FOX’s longstanding hit “American Idol” drumming up interest, the Cheverus team could be hitting the market at a good time.
The group has a fat catalog of music thanks in part to its January invite to the Jazz Education Convention in Louisville, Ky.
“They had to learn a full hour’s worth of music,” Humphrey recalled. “They absorbed about 100 pages of music for that event.”
Their playlist will be pared down somewhat for Saturday’s trip to Boston. Soulstice will perform The Doobie Brothers’ “Minute By Minute,” Corrinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On,” “Life’s Too Good” by Jennifer Barnes of the Los Angeles-based Sixth Wave, and of course “Not Like This.”
“They’re all very diverse,” said Soulstice singer Bobbiellah Andoh. “They’re different songs.”
But while the sky may be the limit for Soulstice, Humphrey said the students are grounded, hardworking and — at least in his rehearsals — kept on their toes. To mimic the practice-to-game ratio high schoolers often see in sports seasons, the music director sprinkles regular concerts around the choir’s rehearsal schedule with stops at nursing homes, elementary schools and even tag-along spots at Humphrey’s own gigs used to keep his singers audience-ready.
“I probably put more work into this [than sports],” said Soulstice vocal percussionist Christian Cilley, who also competes on Cheverus’ soccer, swimming and lacrosse teams. “I spend just about as much time, and it’s probably more challenging.”
Joining Cilley and Andoh in the sextet are Nathan Cass, Sam SaVaun, Erin Fitzpatrick and aspiring singer-songwriter Jake Boyce.
“They’re challenged,” Humphrey said. “They’re pushed. I give them college-level stuff. I have yet to have an ‘American Idol’ or a worldwide superstar come out of my class — I haven’t produced a Billy Joel — but I’ve had a lot of students go on to perform really regularly in the music scene and book lots of gigs.”