Idyllwild Arts jazz sextet from left, bass player Inigo Mantecon, drummer Carlos Del Castillo, singer Alex Keller and guitarist Cameron Smith. Not pictured are pianist Luca Jacaruso and sax player Randy Plummer. Photo by Marshall Smith

For the third year, Idyllwild Arts Jazz Department is sending a jazz combo to the Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival. Each year, 3,000 student jazz singers and musicians from 250 schools attend the festival in Boston, Mass., making it the country’s largest high school jazz festival.

For many student players and singers, it is their induction as nascent professionals into the national jazz scene. They come from public and private high schools all over the country to perform their music, be seen and heard by their peers, be critiqued by festival judges, and for the best of the best, to take home first, second, third or fourth place laurels.

Idyllwild Arts jazz pianist Luca Jacaruso.

In 2011 Idyllwild Arts sent its first combo to Berklee, a sextet called “Eagle’s Nest.” Idyllwild Arts was the upstart West Coast school that few had heard of. “You play in a room the size of one of our rehearsal classrooms, with the combo set up at one end and a panel of judges seated in the back,” said Idyllwild Arts jazz faculty and combo co-director Paul Carman. “We didn’t have much of an audience that year.”

But once Eagle’s Nest finished playing, the buzz began. The sextet took first place in a category long dominated by magnet schools and arts academies accustomed to winning.

In 2012, Carman and Marshall Hawkins returned to Berklee with a quartet and this time it was standing room only when they performed. Word had gotten around. And again, Idyllwild Arts took top honors.

Idyllwild Arts jazz combo sax player Randy Plummer. Photos by Marshall Smith

“It’s not about competition,” stressed Carman. “Marshall [Hawkins, Idyllwild Arts Jazz Department founder} and I feel strongly about that. It’s a learning for our students, a chance for them to dig down and play their music under stressful circumstances.”

Carman noted that he prepares the group to play as real-world working musicians. “Other groups rehearse their solos and lock them in,” he said. “But that’s not jazz. That’s why we build in time for improvisation. Improvisation is what it’s about.”

This year Carman and Hawkins are again bringing a sextet, but with a twist — five instrumentalists and a singer. “I had to check in about the rules on that, the singer,”Carman said. “But I explained that she [Alex Keller] would be singing a separate part as an instrument, as if another horn line.” He explained that at Berklee singers are usually heard in vocal ensembles. “Having a single singer with a combo is a very rare thing there,” Carman said.

Joining Keller are Luca Jacaruso on piano, Inigo Mantecon on bass, Carlos Del Castillo on drums, Cameron Smith on guitar and Randy Plummer on sax. Smith is a sophomore, Jacaruso is a junior and the others are seniors. Jacaruso is the only returning Berklee veteran, having played with last year’s winning quartet.

On the menu for their Saturday, March 2, performance at the Hynes Convention Center are a “Charlie Parker Medley” (“Birdyard” and “Moose the Mooche”) arranged by Joe Lorano, “Lost and Found” by Gretchen Parlato and “Mixed Message” by Larry Goldings.

“We leave early Thursday morning [Feb 28], tour Berklee and go to the jazz concert on Friday, go to clinics, master classes and perform during the day on Saturday, attend the awards ceremony Saturday night and then fly back on Sunday.

“I feel upbeat,” Carman said. “It feels good to me and Marshall to have the confirmation [from festival attendance and judges’ critiques] that we’re operating our program at the top of the heap. And it’s great for the kids to know where they are [with respect to their playing and other students’ performance levels].”

Hawkins demurred when asked his thoughts about this year’s festivals. “This is Paul’s combo,” he said. “He’s the one who initiated this.” And in characteristic Hawkins fashion added, “I love those kids.”

The Berklee festival is in its 45th year.