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July 29, 2005

Doo-bah meets hip-hop

Daily Telegraph (UK):

Mention of the Swingle Singers evokes black-and-white memories of a cappella settings of JS Bach, refurbished with jazzy rhythms and nonsensical syllables like "doo" and "bah". It was a long time ago, but didn't Paris have something to do with it, with the singers kitted out in couture outfits from Balmain and Yves Saint Laurent? It's all true, although that original early '60s incarnation of the group is only a fraction of the story. The Swingle Singers are still in robust health, touring regularly across several continents, but they've grown accustomed to untangling garbled accounts of their own history.

"I'm constantly firing off emails to people who think we died in 1973, offering them tickets to our next gig," says Jes Sadler, the group's master of ceremonies and its very own human beatbox. "We get people coming up to us and accusing us of not being the Swingle Singers. I've spent seven years in the group, and this version is probably incarnation number four."

The current octet comprises two tenors, a couple of basses, a pair of altos and two sopranos. They're mostly British, the group having pulled up its Parisian roots in the mid-'70s when founding father Ward Swingle moved the operation to London, the exceptions being German bass Tobias Hug and Israeli alto Kineret Erez. While settings of Bach remain their signature sound, the repertoire now embraces movie themes, popular standards and classical pieces. Sadler claims that the Swingles have 150 pieces drummed into their memory banks, allowing them to tailor their performance to the occasion. Their average age is under 30, younger than many a road-weary rock band. "Yeah," says Sadler languidly. "We could probably out-drink them as well."

On the day we meet, the group are in St Albans, where, as part of the town's international organ festival, they're wheeling out a bespoke programme "where we contrast Swingles arrangements with the cathedral organ". There's plenty of Bach, alongside some Vivaldi and Albinoni's Adagio. Bach's organ fugue in E minor has been refitted with a light, skipping beat, hustled along by Sadler's sputtering hi-hat noises. Several audience members are convinced they're using backing tapes, but Sadler announces that every sound is made by the human voice.

"Either Toby or I do quite a bit of beatboxing now," he explains. "It's a new take on the idea of combining a classical approach with a more modern attitude. We use hip-hop rather than jazz. It's nice, it's fun." And it apparently meets with the approval of Ward Swingle, who's now in his late seventies but continues to take a close interest in the group that carries his name. Indeed, he invented the genre of "Swingle Singing", which the group frequently teach in day-long classes. "We'll demonstrate to other ensembles how we use a microphone, how we do scat, how we arrange an instrumental piece for voices," Sadler explains.

Swingle's book, Swingle Singing, traces the story back to the author's studies in Paris with concert pianist Walter Gieseking in the late '50s. The Alabama-born Swingle earned some spare cash as a session singer and sang with Blossom Dearie's group, the Blue Stars, before forming the Double Six, who sang arrangements of pieces by Quincy Jones, Gerry Mulligan and a youthful Michel Legrand. Legrand moved to Hollywood to write movie soundtracks, but his sister Christiane, another veteran of the two previous groups, became the stand-out voice in Swingle's new project, the Swingle Singers.

Their experiments with selections from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier earnt them a recording contract with Philips, for whom they recorded a string of bestselling albums. However, the thorny question of whether it was Ward Swingle or Jacques Loussier who first put the bop in baroque has never been resolved. "Jacques and Ward have had a small issue about this over the decades," chuckles Sadler. "They're getting on a bit, so they need to sort it out pretty soon."

The Swingle influence insinuates itself into the unlikeliest places. Paul Weller says the Swingles influenced his Style Council project, composer Luciano Berio called them "an integral part of the history of music of the last 30 years", and Jarvis Cocker recruited them to sing on his theme for the revived TV series Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Earlier this year, Jem's hit single They sampled the Swingles' recording of Bach's Prelude in F minor.

"When the Swingle Singers started they invented something new, and it's something we still carry with us now," says Sadler. "I think that's probably what has sustained the group."

Posted by acapnews at July 29, 2005 9:36 PM