It’s no exaggeration to say that the Disney empire was born with a song.
When Walt Disney released his breakthrough film, the 1928 short “Steamboat Willie,” he not only introduced what would one of the world’s most popular cartoon characters in Mickey Mouse. He also pioneered synchronized sound in animation with a soundtrack that included the songs “Steamboat Bill” and “Turkey in the Straw.”
Given dozens of other options, Kim Nalley and Sasha Dobson probably won’t be singing “Steamboat Bill” at the SFJAZZ Center Saturday, Oct. 7, when the touring production “When You Wish Upon a Star — A Jazz Tribute to 100 Years of Disney” makes its only San Francisco stop. But with a program that spans nine decades the project highlights the way that songwriting has played a central role in the Disney brand from the beginning.
Performed by the newly created house band of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the production is not affiliated with, sponsored, or authorized by the Walt Disney Company. The young New York-based quintet is led by pianist Sean Mason, a rising star who’s been touring with the great jazz singer Catherine Russell.
For vocalists, the Museum recruited two very different artists who both have deep Bay Area ties. Santa Cruz-reared Sasha Dobson hails from an illustrious Bay Area jazz clan that includes her late father, pianist Smith Dobson, her mother, vocalist Gail Dobson, and younger brother, multi-instrumentalist Smith Dobson V.
While jazz stars such as Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Sun Ra all recorded albums dedicated to Disney standards, Dobson absorbed the songs “not from Miles Davis but from the movies,” she said in a recent phone call from her Brooklyn apartment. “I was obsessed with ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Snow White’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’ The music from these movies I watched as a very little person is still in there.”
Dobson was reared on jazz, but she’s carved out a New York niche as a guitar playing singer-songwriter via half a dozen solo albums and the Americana-inflected trio Puss N Boots with Catherine Popper and Norah Jones (yes, that Norah Jones). In something of a musical homecoming, she released her first straight-ahead jazz project in 2021, “Girl Talk,” featuring guitar maestro Peter Bernstein.
Dobson’s lithe, insinuating sound provides a conspicuous contrast to the blues-steeped Nalley, who’s been a definitive Bay Area jazz artist for some three decades. She and Dobson have known of each other since the late ‘90s (and Nalley worked with pianist Smith Dobson on South Bay and Santa Cruz gigs), but they’ll be getting to know each other on the 34-city tour, which kicked off last week at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center.
“Sasha’s doing great things, and has a very beautiful voice that’s very different than mine,” Nalley said. “She can do some of the tunes that are really difficult for me. The project’s name is ‘When You Wish Upon a Star,’ so you know we’re doing that one, and that’s a song that sounds good on a light voice with no vibrato.”
A full-time professor at Cal State East Bay, Nalley notes that as the mother of two young daughters she brought a particularly valuable perspective to Disney’s 21st-century catalog. Stylistically some of the recent songs are a short hop to jazz, like several Randy Newman pieces from 2009’s New Orleans-set “The Princess and the Frog,” which featured Disney’s first African American princess.
“The stuff that’s come out recently is so groundbreaking,” Nalley said. “The level of diversity and the songwriting has grown immensely these past 15 years. I mean, Lin Manuel-Miranda’S work on ‘Moana’ is amazing. I think ‘Encanto’ is more uneven, but I don’t know any kid who doesn’t want to hear ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno.’”
Saturday’s SFJAZZ show is the tour’s seventh date, which is plenty of time for the musicians to meld, especially given Nalley’s insistence on not using sheet music on stage. The band features a bevy of excellent young players, with drummer Ahmad Johnson, bassist Corentin Le Hir, trumpeter Anthony Hervey, and guitarist Alicyn Yaffee, a Northern California native who’s first album, “Someone Else,” features drum star Cindy Blackman Santana and San Francisco trombonist Jeff Cressman.
Designed for families, “When You Wish Upon a Star” offers the comfort of familiarity with the excitement of jazz rhythms and improvisation, Nalley said.
“The Disney-meets-jazz thing is not progressive musically,” she said. “We’re not taking songs and changing them so much you don’t recognize them. It’s accessible. We’re honoring these songs, but interpreting them in a jazz fashion rather than cabaret.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.
‘WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR’
A Jazz Tribute to 100 Years of Disney
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7
Where: Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$65; www.sfjazz.org