Swing with New York Voices

October 05, 2011 — By Kathleen Hollingsworth

New York Voices has brought vocal jazz to the mainstream audience with a distinctive vocal jazz sound. Their classic big band arrangements have made them leaders in the vocal jazz world.

Their approach harkens back to the 1940s and the beginning of vocal jazz, when groups like The Modernaires performed with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and the Pied Pipers sang with the Tommy Dorsey Band. Even Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, arguably the premier vocal group in jazz history, put lyrics to and re-interpreted ten Count Basie’s songs in their debut album, Sing a Song of Basie (1957). The trio followed it up with an album featuring Basie and his band (Sing Along with Basie, 1958). (Coincidentally New York Voices won a Grammy with the Count Basie Orchestra directed by Grover Mitchell for Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.)

Today, most compelling musical ensembles must find their own authentic sound and create a distinct way of expressing their music. But still, it is in the classic big band sound where vocal jazz ensembles often develop their repertoire.

Vocal jazz groups often mimic the melodies, style and articulation of the great instrumental soloists.  Many groups take classic solos and rearrange them into complex harmonized solis. The Manhattan Transfer’s rendition of “Body and Soul” based on saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ famous 1939 recording is a memorable example of that arranging approach. One of the most challenging and popular vocal jazz arrangements by New York Voice’s Darmon Meader is an exciting take on Bill Evans’s definitive piano solo on “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s timeless recording, Kind of Blue.

In fact, while New York Voices has focused with great success on the big band sound (as in their album Sing, Sing, Sing, 2000) their repertoire has also drawn from a broad range of sources including pop, rock, R&B, and Brazilian music. Their 1998 album Sing the Songs of Paul Simon is a prime example. And their 2007 A Day Like This, features arrangements of songs by Laura Nyro (“Stoned Soul Picnic”), Stevie Wonder (“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”) alongside Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” or the standard “Darn That Dream.”

And while the art of vocal jazz is undeniably connected to instrumental jazz, it is the communication of lyrics that gives this art form its own identity. Even in the most compelling jazz instrumental settings, the musicians understand the lyrics and express themselves while paying homage to the origins of the song.

Singer Carmen McRae demanded that each member of her rhythm section knew all the lyrics to her songs. Surely, this would keep them together in case she decided to move in a different musical direction in the moment. More than that, she knew that knowing the lyrics was musically vital for the ensemble trying to paint the picture that the words were meant to express.

Today, vocal jazz thrives in the university world where a strong community of highly regarded directors lead young singers in the art of vocal jazz. University of Miami Frost School of Music is home to Larry Lapin, Professor of Jazz Studies and Director of the Studio Music and Jazz Vocal Program. His students and ensembles have garnered 26 awards in 22 years from DownBeat magazine in its annual student music award competition. JV1 and Extensions, The Frost School’s premiere vocal ensembles, will share the stage with New York Voices on October 13th. The performance will include music by Lapin and student arrangements.

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