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New York Voices: Keeping the Vocal Jazz Flame Burning

R.J. DeLuke By

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Kim Nazarian went to college in upstate New York for acting, with dreams of the Broadway stage. Some 25 years later, she's enjoying a career that has taken her to stages around the globe—but as a singer. Not just a singer, but one of four that makes up New York Voices, a group that has won Grammy Awards and performed with many jazz luminaries during its illustrious run.

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 group—which also includes Peter Eldridge, a third original member, and Lauren Kinhan , who joined in 1992—the 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."

New York Voices—Live with the WDR Bog BandThe 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."


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