New York Voices: Keeping the Vocal Jazz Flame Burning
It's not something Nazarian would have imagined at Ithaca College, but she sure has enjoyed the ride. Likewise for another NYV founding member, Darmon Meader, who played saxophone and started out studying classical music before dabbling in vocal programs. Being part of a singing group that would make an imprint of vocal jazz that can't be erased was not in his plans. It was in his stars.
For the groupwhich also includes Peter Eldridge, a third original member, and Lauren Kinhan , who joined in 1992the formation was fortunate happenstance, the result being a perennially successful group celebrating its quarter-century anniversary this year with a full tour schedule and an outstanding new live CD, New York Voices, Live with the WDR Big Band Cologne (Palmetto, 2013). The band also recently finished a new Christmas recording that will be released in time for the holidays. They've recorded jazz standards, the music of Paul Simon, tunes by Ivan Lins and Annie Lennox. They've recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, clarinetist/saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, the Boston Pops and guitarist/vocalist George Benson. Each time, with its signature lush harmonies and precision work that has attracted arranges like Don Sebesky and Michael Abene.
There's no sign of things becoming stale or the group slowing down.
"We're cranking on," say Meader, the group's musical director. "At this point it's like a well-oiled machine. People have enough time to do their own thing and have enough time for family and whatever else they want to do, and still manage to fit in our 40 or 50 or 70 gigs a year, depending on how busy things get. We actually started working on some things in the last couple months, to get some things generating; started thinking ahead to get back in the studio and maybe do another CD a year from now, or whatever. We just keep cranking along. It's sort of has a life of its own. Even on our worst days, when we get frustrated either internally or externally, we kind of go: 'This music has a life of its own. Why would we want to stop doing this?' It's a cool thing."
Says Nazarian, "Ensemble harmony singing is addictive. It's like a drug. I kind of have to have it. I was bitten in college and realized the thing I was running back to school for was the vocal jazz rehearsal. It wasn't my B.S.A. in acting. It's the people. You have to be pretty smart and sophisticated and intelligent to embrace this music. Because you have to be able to do more than one thing at a time. You're not just singing. You're always listening. You have to able to rub your belly and pat your head while you are singing this stuff, working with the ensemble, then putting it in front of a big band. And then putting it in front of an orchestra, while still maintaining a performance level and a relationship with your audience. It still has to be very human and have that emotional connection at the same time. So there are so many layers. To me it's like delicious food, really good visual art work. Every time you come back to it there's something to pay attention to."
The new CD, with the fine WDR Big Band, covers well the history of the group and the types of things for which it has been known over the years. But it was actually recorded in 2008, the group's 20th anniversary year. Various circumstances resulted in the delay and it was decided to hold off until this year. Songs by the likes of Paul Simon, Lerner and Loewe and Oliver Nelson are covered, and there is original music from members of the group. As expected, it swings like mad in spots, is intricate and delicate in others. It's stylistically diverse and joyously entertaining. The sound is superb.
'When you hear New York Voices [in person], you hear the quality of the CD or better," Nazarian says. "Because we can do what we record. When we were first starting we were in California. We were doing a DVD or commercial for Panasonic. We had to do a live version of 'Caravan,' and they could not believe we could sing the stuff on the record, and Darmon had to memorize his scat solo for it." In today's music industry, what's heard on CD may well be manufactured, cleaned up and perfected by technology. "Or they haven't even sung it themselves. Somebody else did it," she says. "You get them away from Pro Tools and they don't sound like their recording. We do very little doubling, so you really hear the color of our voices. We did what the musicians do."
The recording is also arranged by the renowned Abene, who first worked with New York Voices on its very first album, New York Voices (GRP, 1989).
"It's a big circle. When we were working with [Abene] as a producer in 1989, I knew his background to some degree, but I wasn't fully aware of his immense writing skills and his big band background," says Meader. "I had some favorite Maynard Ferguson recordings and I went back and said, 'Oh my god. There's Michael Abene playing piano and writing charts.' I didn't even realize it. So he and I have a real common shared affinity for orchestrating big bands and things like that. Even before the WDR project, we hired Michael a few times to write some orchestral and big band charts for us because we just loved his approach. There are a couple arrangements of his on our Sing, Sing, Sing (Concord) big band CD from 2001. When he started working with WDR, we hoped he could invite us over one of these years and it came to fruition. It was really exciting."
Meader says the recording was planned as a retrospective to some degree, "so we intentionally chose a few songs that come from the early New York Voices repertoire. Songs like 'Stolen Moments,' and 'The Sultan Fainted,' an original piece Peter and I wrote. These songs came from the quintet days. We re-voiced them for four parts and brought them back to life for this project. We wanted a wide variety of old and new. Then there were things like the Annie Lennox tune, 'Love Me or Leave Me,' newer things that had never been recorded. All the big band charts were brand new. So even tunes people might have heard us sing in the past got reinvented for this setting. Like most typical New York Voices concerts, it has that wide breadth of style from true jazz standards to things that come from more of a pop sensibility. I use the term 'pop' loosely. As soon as you get me and Michael Abene in a room and start playing around with an Annie Lennox tune, you know it's going to end up sounding more harmonically jazz-based than it did in its original setting."
The holiday recording will also have variety, from a cappella tunes and big band renditions to songs with a symphony. "It's really special. Darmon has worked incredibly hard with all of the arranging, editing, mixing, overdubbing, big band and strings," says Nazarian. "We're really making our holiday wishes come true with this one. They say you get one Christmas record, and we're really trying to deliver."
It's another joyful step for a group that formed at Ithaca College in the mid-'80s. "We all had different backgrounds in terms of what we were in school for," says Meader. "Kim was an acting major. I was in classical saxophone, also heavy emphasis on instrumental jazz. Peter was a classical pianist and singer. But we all had this common interest in singing, particularly jazz. We all got attracted to this idea of vocal group singing. We had all, in various ways, been influenced by groups like The Manhattan Transfer and Singers Unlimited, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the Hi-Los. All that kind of stuff."
Ithaca College had a vocal ensemble. After Meader, Nazarian and Eldridge graduated, the director of the ensemble was invited to bring a group over to Europe to work at some festivals. They were invited to participate. There were six singers and "it all kind of clicked," says Meader. "We thought we might want to try and do this as a real group, professionally. The timing was right. Kim was already living in New York. Peter and I were thinking of moving to New York. We got the thing rolling."
It was originally a quintet., and Caprice Fox, also an Ithaca grad, and Sara Krieger were original members. The group took off fast.
"I think we were young and persistent and kind of wide-eyed and ready to see what would happen. It was back in the late '80s and there were a lot of clubs you could play," Meader says. "You wouldn't make any money, but you could certainly find gigs. We were booking gigs around town [New York City] and started to develop a nice following. We were very actively trying to get record people and business people to come check us out. That was the heyday of GRP and a much more active record company scene than we have now. We got picked up pretty quickly. It developed nice momentum in that small scale of the jazz industry. We were pretty excited about what happened those first few years."
"Being on GRP Records. Having CD109 play your music. Having the Circle Line cruises in New York. There were so many opportunities at that point for the kind of music we were doing," recalls Nazarian. "Being on tour with [pianist] Dave Grusin and [singer] Patti Austin did not hurt at all. Being paired with Take 6 at Carnegie Hall. These were all huge launching points for us. And we still do some of those arrangements that were on the first record. So the music is timeless. The charts are successful. We're still able to perform them and execute themsometimes even better than we did 25 years ago."
The quintet worked into 1992, when Krieger decided to leave. Auditions were held and Kinhan landed the gig. Fox left in 1994 and New York Voices decided to stay a quartet.
"One of the reasons of choosing a quintet from the beginning partly had to do with that, as an arranger, I loved the idea of doing five notes to get these great, big, fat chords," says the ebullient Meader, who does most of the arranging. "One of the other reasons was we knew there was going to be the inevitable comparison with Manhattan Transfer, who were in high gear back then. They were coming off their success with the Vocalese (Atlantic, 1985) record and that Brazil-influenced record [Brasil (Atlantic, 1987)]. They were still quite high profile. We thought, as a quintet, we'd seem a little different." But as time moved on, "Frankly, we found that the comparisons were inevitableeven with the quintet. Ultimately, the genre was certainly comparable. So we decided to downsize to a quartet. Maybe you missed the fifth note occasionally, but most of the time we were performing with a rhythm section anyway, so there's all kinds of other harmonic information going on. And we liked the balance of two men and two women as a better sound. Not to mention, there's financial issues that get a little simpler where there are four slices of the pie instead of five."
Meader cites the Manhattan Transfer as an influence in various ways, including its broad repertoire. They did strong jazz vocalese numbers and they had cross-over hits like "Boy From New York City." "The fact they had this breadth of repertoire was something that we loved," he says, "because as much as we embraced jazz, especially myself as a saxophonist listening to a lot of big band and fusion and [saxophonists] Sonny Rollins and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley; we also all grew up listening to and loving things like Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder. The pop music of our generation. Those kind of influences all fit together under this one roof in the early days, in a way that Manhattan Transfer had also done."
He acknowledges the music industry's desire to categorize bands, which New York Voices resisted to some extent. "We liked doing a lot of different stuff, with the idea that the four-part harmony thing was the connecting thread. Over time, the fusion side of jazz got to be a littlein our opinion and, I think, in many jazz musicians' opinionsmore and more innocuous. That smooth jazz kind of thing that got less and less adventurous and more and more doctor's office jazz. We started moving further and further away from that. It didn't intrigue us to get that complacent with the sound. So over that last 15 years or so I think we've been considered more of an acoustic jazz group."
"There aren't that many groups that do what we do," says Nazarian. "You can probably list them on one hand. Take 6 came out at the same time we did. It was a different take on ensemble singing. But it still pleased the sophisticated ear. What they were doing was so amazing. I remember when their first CD came out I was in my apartment in the fetal position for a weekend, just listening and wondering, 'How do we continue our forward motion with such a force as Take 6?' But you know what? They put us right together and we toured together and it was amazing. Now we have the same booking agency in Germany and there's a chance we might be going to China together. They're great guys. We've independently been on projects together. When the universe is ready to receive, it makes room. And there is room, there's lots of room for groups like this."
Meader says the group enjoys doing R&B songs they grew up enjoying, and pop tunes from the Baby Boomer era, "but ultimately the more complex arrangements of ours draw from the jazz side of things. But we have a wide variety of tastes. We like grabbing something that's more Lambert, Hendricks & Ross-ish vocalese. But we'll also gravitate to things more in the traditional Cole Porter side of things. We love Brazilian jazz. Antonio Carlos Jobim, things of that nature. We also love tackling things like Ivan Lins or Jovan. We have people in the group who like to compose on their own, so we try to include a few originals of our own as well. It's kind of diverse. We enjoy mixing it up. We find the challenges of jumping into different genres to be kind of fun."
He adds, "We've tackled some things some times that don't work for us. So it doesn't always work, but we like to give it a try."
With 25 years under its belt, Nazarian says the group gets better with age. "I totally think we've gotten better. We've gotten faster. I think we really care about each other. We all have exponential resources with the four of us that we call upon, and that has helped too. There's a pride. There's just a pride. This has been our life's investment. We have made a mark. I think we continue to make a mark. We are in the history book of vocal jazz. The fact that we have stayed together for 25 years is probably the most impressive thing that we've done. It's not the Grammys. It's not the number of records. It's that we're still doing it the way we're doing it, with a level of integrity and a standard that is pretty high."
She points to a "killer slamming" weekend the band enjoyed in Boston in April. "People on their feet. Encores. We put up two new tunes and the people are still crying for more and they're bringing their kids to see us. Not only do we want it to stay alive, they [the audience] want it to stay alive. It's become a family affair. There are generations that come to hear New York Voices. Which warms my heart and makes me feel so good. Our original object was to diminish the distance between instrumental and vocal jazz. We're doing it. And we're still doing it. Trying to create the well-rounded musician, the well-rounded listener. We do that in our camp as well."
The camp she refers to is a vocal camp the group established that they have conducted in the summer for the last few years. Nazarian, instrumental in its formation, says it continues to grow in numbersa good sign because it serves a noble purpose. It helps people in the country who are then going forward and conducting vocal group programs. General training in that area, she says, is woefully lacking.
"You have people graduating with a music degree and they've had maybe two methods classes for vocal jazz ensemble. Yet when they get hired, they're required to run a vocal jazz ensemble. And they've literally had two, two-hour sessions. They need this kind of extra education. So that they know what they're doing and they pick good charts and their kids are solid and they can go to their festivals and are nurtured with quality information," she says with passion. "We help the teachers that help the classrooms that then help the school districts; that give jazz a better name. Vocal jazz can have a really bad rap because it's done poorly. I think it's up to us to try and continue to build that reputation and the only way to do it is from the ground up. You develop good listeners and you develop good future vocal jazz people, whether they're doing it or they're teaching it."
The camp has auxiliary benefits, she notes. "I don't think we work harder than we do in that week. It exaggerates both your strengths and your weaknesses when you have to articulate everything it is that you do. And someone has to understand that, digest it and be able to execute it. You want to be as successful a teacher because you are definitely in a spotlight as a teacher. You want to be as successful there as you do in front of the microphone or in the recording studio. Otherwise, you're doing a disservice to these people. We take it very seriously and we work very hard for the success of the camp and the music and the students."
The four individuals also have projects of their own that give them another artistic outlet, and important time away from New York Voices for regeneration. Meader does a lot of work as a guest artist going into colleges, and is on the adjunct faculty at Manhattan School of Music, as is Eldridge. He also does some gigs with his Darmon Meader Quartet. Eldridge has five solo CDs. Kinhan writes her own music and records as well.
Nazarian said she is working on a solo record with her husband. "Getting to flush out your own ideas outside of the group is very satisfying and fulfilling. Hearing your own tone and letting that be the only thing that's necessary is also an adjustment. But it also puts weight on the material that you do and how you arrange it and that it's perfectly suited for you and your solo voice, and that all your strengths are being highlighted. Improvisation room. I used to be so afraid of that. Now it's gotten to the point where it's kind of fun. Going out there by yourself takes a lot of courage. It's kind of like starting over, for me. But I couple that, usually, with teaching. And I'm as passionate about my teaching as I am about my performing."
But New York Voices keep these four in harmony. Nazarian, for her part, hasn't given up her Broadway dream; she says, lightheartedly, "I still have that dream and thinking that it might be with New York Voices at some point in time. Did I ever think this quartet would be together and I would be in it? No. I often say if I had to audition for this group I wouldn't get in. I was happy to be a founding member."
"We've grown up together," says Meader. "I'd be lying if I said it was a bed of roses. We've had our moments where we've disagreed or had challenges in terms of people's individual life decisions not necessarily being the perfect decision for the group. We've managed to negotiate through all of those life decisions. People moving to other places and getting married and starting families. One of the reasons the group has lasted as long as it has is, first of all, we all share a strong affinity for this style and love doing it. But also, most musicians in jazz are doing a lot of different things to fill in the spaces between what might be their regular gigs. We are definitely like that. Some of are very active as educators. All four of us do solo work on our own. I think some of those outside projects; we do them because we like having some things away from the group. That helps stimulate our energy when we are back together."
He says a typical year for New York Voices is between 50 and 75 gigs, "which is a lot of gigs when you multiply that by 25 years. But it's also not like we're trying to slam out 200 gigs in a year. We have enough space away from the group that it helps us appreciate what we do have when we're together. A lot of our concerts are at jazz clubs or jazz festivals or performing arts centers, but we also do a fair amount of concerts that are specifically affiliated with a high school or college that has brought us in to do some educational things during the day and then a concert at night. We see the excitement of a bunch of high school or colleges kids that are singing their own vocal jazz choir and they're getting geeked out by hanging out and talking with New York Voices for the day. They love hearing the music. That energy is very contagious and kind of keeps us going."
Activities this year have already included concerts with the Manhattan Transfer. There will be gigs in Canada, a trip to Europe and possibly a trip to Asia.
Nazarian admits there have been occasional bumps in the road for New York Voices and times when members might wonder if it's time to stop, "but something in the universe goes: 'Nope. Now you need to be going on the road with the Boston Pops.' Or, 'Nope, now you need to do this other record.' So it's been internally and externally, the forces that continue to drive this group. We don't ignore it. We're not done, as long as we can continue to be fulfilled. And we continue to be rejuvenated and our lives are balanced and everyone is happy; I think we'll keep going.
A bright spirit, Nazarian sparkles when she says, "As James Moody says, you just have to keep showing up. You just have to be persistent and hang in there. We're still waiting for our hit. But if the music is good, why not keep going? This is our life's investment. We are giving back to the genre and the industry and keeping this kind of music alive."
New York Voices, Live With The WDR Big Band (Palmetto, 2013)
New York Voices, A Day Like This (MCG Jazz, 2007)
Paquito D'Rivera, Brazilian Dreams (MCG Jazz, 2002)
New York Voices, Sing, Sing, Sing (Concord Records, 2001)
New York Voices, Sing the Songs of Paul Simon (RCA, 1998)
New York Voices, What's Inside (GRP, 1993)
New York Voices, Hearts of Fire (GRP, 1991)
New York Voices, New York Voices (GRP, 1989)
Count Basie Orchestra, With the New York Voices (Blue Jackel Records, 1986)
All Photos: Courtesy of New York Voices