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."

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 them—sometimes 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.
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