Grammy-winning group kicks music in the jazz

Don’t tell jazz vocalist Darmen Meader to sing standards. He and the rest of Grammy-winning quartet New York Voices have a little more to offer than just Ella, Duke and other standard jazz fare.

“Our jazz standard repertoire — yes, oftentimes comes from songs you would expect to hear jazz singers sing. But we’ve always enjoyed tackling songs that are traditionally thought of as instrumental,” Meader said.

That’s one of the reasons the group felt like it could alter a classic like John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” and get away with it. They use a technique called “vocalese,” where lyrics are written for melodies that exist as an instrumental composition or improvisation.

Vocalese differs from the more famous scatting in that it uses real words, often to tell a quick story, instead of nonsensical syllables. The style originated with the pioneering Eddie Jefferson. His tweaking of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” became a hit on its own. But the group most prolific in the style is Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, whose hit “Twisted” is considered a classic. Still, Al Jarreau and The Manhattan Transfer may be the best known for the technique.

“We’ve done this before; in fact Peter and Kim collaborated on the lyrics for ‘Giant Steps’ on one of our early records,” Meader explained. The song “Jackie” on the group’s new CD is a prime example.

The disc, “A Day Like This,” released in September to positive reviews. And while they’re getting attention for their use of this very complex approach, there’s something for everyone on this disc. Meader’s scatting in “On a Clear Day” is fun, smooth and energetic. Arrangements run from nearly a capella to backed by a full big band, and includes swing, straight jazz and a lot of crossover appeal. These are four singers who are serious about doing the almost impossible with their voices, but their natural and
playful appeal makes it look like child’s play.

And few of the uninitiated — including, ahem, DownBeat Magazine — seem to grasp the intricacy and difficulty of four-part harmonic singing… four-part harmonic jazz singing, at that. Meader is accustomed to explaining much of what they do — even to the parent of one member of the group, who he declined to identify.

“A parent of one of the members of the group said it sounded like there were some wrong notes in there. Why didn’t you fix that?” Meader explained with a warm laugh. “We love that story. But this comes from someone who had never been exposed to those dense harmonies.”

Jazz is a wide umbrella. Some purists believe that no good jazz has been recorded since 1955. And to others, Kenny G epitomizes jazz. The truth – and the trouble – is that jazz is small market.

“The group vocal jazz niche is a very small cross-section of that, and we find that there are a lot of people who think that jazz is an instrumental music, and I’ll acquiesce that Ella was pretty great but other people find that four-part harmony really rocks their world.” Meader says.

So the group often finds themselves introducing people to a new way of looking at jazz.

The weird thing is they find themselves doing it at places like Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, The Austria Opera House, The Zurich Opera House and the Montreal Jazz Festival. After all, this is the same group that won a Grammy for their collaboration with the Count Basie Orchestra.

The members of the group boast diverse interests, and incorporate Brazilian, R&B, classical and pop into their shows. Most of them double as vocalists and
instrumentalists on their group albums, and then each of them enjoys a side career that involves even more CD releases.

Peter Eldridge has released three solo recordings of his own, in addition to his teaching career at the Manhattan School of Music.

Lauren Kinhan released a solo CD and collaborated with guitarist Jiro Yoshida on a collection of jazz standards entitled, “Guitar and the Moon.”

Kim Nazarian’s featured appearances keep her busy, along with her commitment to music education. Her Japanese CD release “Red Dragonfly in New York,” a collection of Japanese folk songs translated into English and arranged in “western” musical settings, gained her critical acclaim.

Meader himself stays busy as a sideman, university clinician and studio musician.

“We’ve tended to be diverse and to stay that way in live concerts,” Meader said.

He also says that their album represents more of what audiences would see if they came to a jazz club and watched a performance, which is different than their upcoming performance with the Augusta Symphony. The symphonic setting at the Bell Auditorium will be more holiday based, while the following show at Maxwell Theatre at Augusta State University will be more like what you can expect from the group at one of their own shows, backed by their own jazz trio.

Fans of any music genre will enjoy New York Voices’ ability to bring a contemporary feel to classic material without rendering it unrecognizable.

New York Voices and the Augusta Symphony Orchestra
The Bell Auditorium
Friday, Dec. 14
7:30 p.m.
706-826-4705
augustasymphony.org

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