In 1986, a group of kids from Ithaca College got to sing at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Although it was on the patio, rather than the main casino stage, it inspired the creation of the New York Voices, one of the most successful and long-running vocal groups in music history. The Voices seem to be on continuous tour, performing at the world's most prestigious venues. After six of their own albums, and two Grammy-winners with Paquito D'Rivera and the Count Basie band, they are about to launch A Day Like This
(MCG Jazz, 2007), their first studio release in eight years.
In the midst of all this, Voices co-founder Peter Eldridge has been carving out a strong solo path as a singer/songwriter/educator/arranger/producer [Note: All of the Voices have their own independent projects.] There are three Eldridge CDs so far: Stranger in Town, a dreamy mix of jazz standards with stellar backing from Michael Brecker, Donny McCaslin, Lewis Nash, Romero Lubambo and Claudio Roditi, and Fool No More, the first collection of Peter's compositions [both out in 2000, from Rosebud Records].
More delightful originals are gathered up in Decorum (Reuben's Tunes, 2005), and some of its tracks have been showing up in interesting places. For example, "Surrender" is the title track of Jane Monheit's 2007 Telarc album, while D'Rivera has covered "Difficult." Eldridge is also the English-language lyricist for Ivan Lins, the Brazilian composer that many consider the successor to Tom Jobim; one of their collaborations, "Minds of Their Own," appears on Nancy Wilson's Grammy-winning RSVPRare Songs, Very Personal (MCG Jazz, 2004).
Eldridge's music is as multifaceted as he is: quirky and clever and romantic, both vulnerable and hip, it's full of barbed social commentary as well as hope and joy. Never a moon/June/spoon kind of lyricist, he finds new aspects of love to write about, and all of it rides in on beautiful, catchy melodies that sound like no one else's.
AAJ finally caught up with Eldridge between his many commitments, and spent a few happy hours discussing his life and career, the history of the Voices, the state of the world, and his Paris Hilton song.
All About Jazz: Let's talk about your most consistent gig of the past twenty years, which has been the New York Voices. So far, you've been most widely known for being part of that. I don't know if we want to get into my complete bafflement as to why you guys aren't more famous and richer than you are. Like, what happened?
Peter Eldridge: That's a good question. There are so many different theories why. I just think it was never the right mix of machine and motion and tune. I don't knowwe kind of do what we do, and maybe to a faultwe didn't take advice from those people who said, "You know if you did this song, you'd be in every household in America." We never did the novelty song. I think for vocal groups, it's good to sit on the novelty side of things. Take Manhattan Transfer, the ultimate example, who did "Boy from New York City," or "Java Jive"they're campy, funny songs. They didn't get famous by doing a beautiful ballad. It goes with the territory. And we never really signed up for that.
AAJ: Well, there was "National Amnesia," which hit pretty hard when it hit [their first album, New York Voices (GRP, 1989)].
PE: Yeah, in New York, on the smooth jazz stations. But other than that, it wasn't a big hit at all. I mean, the hard core people will go, "Do you guys ever do that song?" And we go, "Huh?" It's kind of a mixed blessing in a waywe don't have to go out every performance and do our old stuff. The easiest comparison, again, is the Transfer, who goes out and does their hits, because that's exactly what their audience wants to hear.
AAJ: But they don't write anything.
AAJ: I think they're just tapping into the doo-wop nostalgia thing, from the '50s.
PE: Well, they started with the doo-woppy kind of vibe, but then began trying on a lot of different hats, expanding the concepts of what vocal jazz was about at the time. As different as the two groups are ultimately, that element has certainly inspired and opened creative doors for the Voices.
AAJ: I guess that pompadour was your concession to the doo-wop vibe... [referring to the 1989 publicity picture of the original Voices, in which Peter sports an impressively styled hairdo and everyone's in carefully-posed Glamour Mode. Peter refers to that photo as "the escort service shot"].
PE: That takes me back. It's funny to see that group of people, as compared to what it is now, it's pretty amazingjust the journey of becoming a person through this experience. Walking into something, from the beginning"I'm singing, in a vocal group?" From that vantage pointright from the get goit was weird, because I was just a piano guy. My older brother and sister both sang; I played for them. And singing always scared the bejeebees out of me.
AAJ: Really? That's hard to believe.
PE: Something about it was just too vague and too vulnerable. I remember singing in the kids' choir in church and Mrs. HermanMama Herman we called herwho was the choir director at the church in New Jersey. There was a small solo in some bigger piece, and she wanted to hear each kid sing by themselves. So she said, "I'd like each of you to get up and sing something." Well, you never saw a kid bolt out of a rehearsal room faster than me. It was like, "I'd rather die... than get up in front of all these people and sing by myself." There was no way in hell. So I sprinted out of that room, never to go back. I had a pretty substantial fear of singing.
PE: Yeah. Something about it felt bigger than I was, and then it's such a vulnerable thing: it is your soul, coming out of your mouth.
AAJ: But not everybody sings like that.
PE: True, but for me it was way too daunting. And I didn't do it until that fateful summer, when I sang "Ticket to Ride" for my Pirates of Penzance audition.
AAJ: (we laugh) Did you get the gig?
PE: Yes, and in college the fear lessened. I became a voice major, a classical voice major, because I'd been a classical piano major and I just hated sitting in a practice room by myself for hours and hours, practicing Mozart sonatas. I didn't like all that alone time. I'd wanted to be an accompanist for great singers. I was the accompanist for everybody at school. I played this whole art song repertoire, that's what I thought I was going to do: German lieder, operatic arias, 20th century atonal music. I loved French chanson the most, particularly Poulenc and Debussy, who were so jazz-based, though I wasn't really aware of it at the time.
But the more I think about it, the vocal group thing was always important to me. I was a pop kidThe Fifth Dimension, even The Carpenters, the Association, the Beatles of course, Queen, Fleetwood Mac. All those harmonies made me crazy...the more the merrier. I'm sure that's a major reason I'm in the Voices now.