New York Voices: Keeping the Vocal Jazz Flame Burning
"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."