May 30, 2006
Group Licenses Name to Universal Pictures for “The Break Up”
On June 2, Universal Studios will release "The Break Up," starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. While movie-goers across the nation will focus on the on-screen romance between the film’s co-stars, a cappella fans in and around the nation’s capital will be keeping their eyes and ears on the Tone Rangers, a fictionalized singing group inspired by Washington's own Tone Rangers, a men's octet.
“Film credits routinely state that similarities between real people and those depicted in film are coincidental. But that was not the case with the Tone Rangers,” said manager/tenor Gil Keteltas. “Two years ago, screenwriter Jeremy Garelick wrote to us saying he had wanted to make a movie about a singing group since his days at Yale, and his research brought him to the Tone Rangers,” Keteltas said. The Tone Rangers worked out a licensing deal with Universal that allows the group’s name to be used on screen. Previews suggest Hollywood has taken liberties with its version of the Tone Rangers, clothing the group in over-the-top Western wear, complete with holsters and cap-guns. “Happily, our Hollywood alter-egos share our serious interest in cutting-edge, humorous, vocal arrangements of popular songs from past decades,” Keteltas said.
The Tone Rangers – composed of area professionals including a lawyer, two lobbyists, and a college dean – were founded twenty years ago by alumni of Cornell University's Hangovers. This award-winning group delights audiences from coast to coast with its dynamic blend of tight harmonies, inventive arrangements and keen wit. National finalists in the 2002 Harmony Sweepstakes (the Superbowl of a cappella), the Tone Rangers are also three-time winners of Mid-Atlantic "Audience Favorite" and "Best Arrangement" awards.
Review - Janis Siegel
The Times (UK):
The name may not be instantly familiar, but if you picture the smaller, sassier member of Manhattan Transfer, you’ll certainly know who she is. Janis Siegel’s colleagues haven’t always attracted the respect they deserve, yet an album such as Spirit of St Louis, their homage to Louis Armstrong, was steeped in true jazz colours.
Siegel has long pursued a parallel solo career, and her latest release, A Thousand Beautiful Things, shows that she has not lost her taste for new challenges. Breaking away from the traditional repertoire, she has gone in search of modern pop numbers that can stand up to brisk treatment from a Latin-style rhythm section. While it may not be quite as audacious as Lea DeLaria’s clever rock-chick performance on the CD Double Standards, Siegel finds new depths in some unexpected places, from Annie Lennox’s title tune to Björk’s Hidden Place.
The addition of Colombian harp lends extra colour to the studio versions. In Knightsbridge, the settings were starker, the pianist Edsel Gomez leading a hard-driving trio fuelled by the volcanic drumming of Steve Hass. There were moments when Siegel, whose feathery inflexions hovered somewhere between the Village Vanguard and the Algonquin, was in danger of being swept away by the waves of energy.
Did You See the Moon Tonight? was the cue for some artful introspection. If I Can’t Help It is less than vintage Stevie Wonder (the song was actually recorded by Michael Jackson), Siegel gave it a touch of sophistication. Dipping into Sondheim’s Company was a less inspired decision: Siegel isn’t the first singer to be seduced by those strained rhymes.
She seemed much more comfortable on Lorraine Feather’s brassy homage to her native Brooklyn; the voice grew darker and bluesier and much less self-conscious. There was just as much vim to Too Darn Hot — the evergreen still has life in it yet.
May 29, 2006
Back from a lovely vacation!
My beautiful wife Tess and our daughter Emma Rose at Big Sur
No blogging this past week as the family and I have been away on our annual vacation. This year we went to the stunningly beautiful Monterey peninsula staying in the lovely small town of Pacific Grove, which we highly recommend over the more touristy area of Monterey city proper. The kids just loved the world-class Monterey Aquarium with the "splash zone" being a big favorite along with the jellyfish and penguins. We spent a couple of days just down the coast in Big Sur with its spectacular coastline and giant redwoods and particularly recommend the Point Lobos state park with amazing and unique flora and fauna including of course the famous Cyprus trees. Pebble Beach, Spanish Bay and the other golf courses looked marvelous but sadly there was neither time nor money ($425 green fees for 18 holes) for me to play although I have promised myself a round there one day. We spent a day in Carmel which is one of the most delightful towns I have ever had the pleasure of visiting and found everybody to be most helpful and friendly. Altogether it was a great trip and if any readers wishes for more details on lodging (we found a very pleasant place to stay) or other details of the area do send us an email.
May 25, 2006
Cheesy Name, Sublime Music
Washington Post (DC):
Their name sounds more Monty Python than Monteverdi, but the Suspicious Cheese Lords -- a Washington-based men's a cappella group that specializes in music from the Renaissance -- is one very serious ensemble. In a genuinely beautiful performance at the Church of the Epiphany on Tuesday, the Lords showed that they could deliver not only thoughtful interpretations, but rapturous musicmaking as well.
That was clear from the opening notes of Palestrina's 1584 motet, "Sicut Cervus," given a performance so weightless and transparent it practically turned to light. Two dreamlike songs by the 16th-century child prodigy Vittoria Aleotti were equally luminous, though a challenging work by Francesco Landini -- full of pungent harmonies and intriguing rhythms -- came off just a bit ragged. But the final two Renaissance works on the program (including a finely detailed eight-voice lament by Nicolas Gombert) layered wave upon wave of precisely calibrated, exceptionally moving song.
While they were clearly right at home in the 16th century, the Lords also easily negotiated works from our own millennium, including several compositions from the group's members -- all of which resonated with a certain Renaissance flavor. Despite some fine ideas, Gordon Geise's "A Rose Beheld the Sun" felt vague and unsure of itself, but Gary Winans Jr.'s ". . . les cedres et chaque petite fleur . . ." was much more satisfying, with a distinctive musical imagination and firm compositional control. George Cervantes's "Blessing of Saint Francis," meanwhile -- with its faint but wonderful undertones of Brian Wilson -- was a real delight to the ears.
Oh, and the group's name? It's a playful translation of "Suscipe Quaeso Domine," the title of a motet by Thomas Tallis -- more sedately known as "Take, I Ask Lord."
May 20, 2006
I know it's only a cappella, but I like it
The Times (UK):
Far from enjoying a rock-star lifestyle of ease and luxury, the “Mick Jagger of early music”, Harry Christophers, is squashed into the back seat of a family car with three male singers from his choir, and me. We’re on our way to Norwich Cathedral, where the Sixteen are to perform, as part of the choir’s annual Pilgrimage tour of Britain, a programme by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the 16th-century Spanish master of sacred choral music. He’s hardly a household name, even for classical fans, yet tonight, as often on this tour, it’s a full house.
Christophers is a slim, softly- spoken man, his hair a Jaggeresque curly tangle. He’s sheepish about the comparison with the Stones frontman. “Well yes, Classic FM did once call me a rock god of classical music,” he says, to good-natured teasing from his companions. “And I used to have very long hair . . .” They recall that on their last tour of the States, the Sixteen found themselves performing on one side of Wiltshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, while the Rolling Stones were playing on the other, part of the Forty Licks tour. “Of course, the queues were for the Sixteen,” Christophers says, wryly.
It’s all about scale. Within the esoteric world of early choral music the Sixteen (there were originally 16 of them) are at the pinnacle. They tour widely, not only abroad, always a good money-spinner for an English choir, but throughout Britain — seen as a more difficult market. Last year they won Ensemble Album of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards. They are “the Voices of Classic FM”. Now they have a new London home at the South Bank, where they will be associate ensemble for the coming season.
The niche they have carved out for themselves in 26 years comes from Christophers’s passion for Renaissance, pre-Reformation music and Handel. There are other rivals on the same territory – groups such as the Tallis Scholars, the Gabrieli Consort and, of course, John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir, Baroque specialists. All of them have succeeded in bringing to a mainstream audience the sort of music that ten years ago was on the margins. “We all have our idiosyncrasies,” Christophers says. “Peter Phillips at Tallis lets the music breathe and speak for itself. I don’t; I tend to interpret more, which can lead to its own problems. Sometimes I stand back and think, hang on, I’m trying to put something into the music that’s not there.”
Then there’s the legendary Eliot Gardiner, or Jeg, as they refer to him. “Jeg demands absolute, total dictatorial precision,” says Christopher Royall, a Sixteen stalwart who sang with the Monteverdis in the past. “Harry coaxes, but for Jeg I had mostly fear, as well as respect for him. But mostly fear.”
Tonight’s concert in Norwich is to be candlelit, a popular feature of the tour, but not without hazard. There’s the poor light for one thing. And the noise. “We did the same thing in Salisbury Cathedral,” Christophers recalls. “They put big plastic sheets down to stop the wax falling on to the stonework and in quiet moments you could hear this splat . . . splat.” We meet the rest of the choir at the glorious cathedral in Norwich, golden in the afternoon sunshine. They can’t rehearse until Evensong is over, and as they wait, small boys in school uniform, the cathedral choristers, come bounding out. The Sixteen look on indulgently; most of them started their own singing careers in cathedral or church choirs.
The rehearsal, which covers only extracts of the programme, is brisk and friendly. The 18 singers, aged between 22 and 60, are all professional sight-readers, and most of them are already very familiar with the work. The music is handed out there and then: no one practises at home. This can be scary for the deputies — singers brought in to cover for absent core members. One young man who was returning after six weeks off with voice strain was seeing it for the first time. “I’m singing without knowing what notes are coming next,” he said nervously.
I had heard the Sixteen only in a concert hall before. Here, in the sort of building Victoria’s devotional music was written for, it sounds quite different. In full throttle, the 18 voices rebound off the vaulted ceiling and stonework with dizzying resonance. “In these fabulous buildings,” Christophers says, “you can see the music working its way round stone pillars and stained-glass windows. Every phrase goes up and down, reflecting the architecture. You can’ t capture that in a concert hall.”
Fabulous they may be, but some of England’s venerable cathedrals make poor venues: cold and uncomfortable. The Sixteen have abandoned Ely: “It’s perishing,” one singer recalls. “All the locals know it, and they come with coats, cushions, blankets, the lot.” Winchester (tomorrow) is a favourite, and this year they have added Southwell at the end of the Pilgrimage in the autumn. Long hours of travel, shared meals and waiting about mean that the singers know each other extremely well. They praise the Sixteen’s team spirit, saying that Christophers chooses his members not only for their musical talents but also their ability to socialise. They share a passion for sport — Christophers, an Arsenal fan, jokes that he’s the Arsène Wenger of choral music, selecting the best squad.
All the singers are freelance, though the core members have regular engagements with the Sixteen and make about 30 per cent of their income from it. The rest of the time they sing with other groups, at Glyndebourne, in the choirs at Westminister Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and they teach in private schools. Some have left the choir’s ranks to pursue illustrious solo careers, such as Mark Padmore and Carolyn Sampson.
There’s a kind of undergraduate jollity about them, hardly surprising since many have come through the same colleges — mainly Oxford and Cambridge. “They produce phenomenal choirs and fantastic singers,” Christophers says. He is from Magdalen College, Oxford, while several others are from St John’s College, Cambridge. “It’s like going round with your mates,” says one young tenor, Will Unwin, “it’s really a lot of fun. No one does it to make a million pounds, but as a result everyone does it for the right reasons. “One night you can find yourself one of 13 on stage at the Albert Hall live on radio and feeling like king of the world, the next day you’re doing a wedding in North London for £55. The job satisfaction is absolutely brilliant.”
It’s time for the performance. The cathedral gleams in the candlelight and the singers are waiting in their evening dress, some of the men playing table football in a vestry. Some 700 tickets have been sold for this, the opening night of the Norwich Festival, and the nave is full. “It’s a bit like the Proms effect,” says the festival’s artistic director, Jonathan Holloway. “People come to the festival from all over the county and they might not go to anything else all year. There’s a real sense of ownership.” Christophers comes on stage to huge applause, raises his arms and the people of Norfolk are plunged back five centuries to Catholic Spain.
May 18, 2006
REVIEW - Ladysmith Black Mambazo
The Telegraph (UK):
The warm, soothing sound of the eight-piece South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo made it perfect for the soup adverts they provided the music for a few years ago. At the start of a tour of the country with the Mahotella Queens, they are as spirited and joyous as ever, despite personnel changes (leader Joseph Shabalala's four sons are now in the group, and his brother died recently).
On record, they have been highly variable in their output, including some dubious forays into "chill-out" music and Bach and Mozart, but they retain their live fire impressively for a group that was formed 45 years ago. On their latest album, Long Walk to Freedom, are new versions of many of their best-known numbers (with assorted illustrious guests, from Emmylou Harris to Hugh Masekela) and this concert featured songs from it, such as the stately Shosholoza and the playful Hello My Baby.
Any other act borrowing the title for their album from Nelson Mandela's autobiography might be seen as presumptuous, but not only were Ladysmith Black Mambazo prominent in bearing witness to racial inequality during apartheid, they also performed at Mandela's inauguration as president of South Africa and when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Like Mandela, their appeal is partly their mix of determination and gentleness.
They sing in a Zulu choral style called isicathamiya, developed in the coal and diamond mines by men who were often separated from their families in Durban and Johannesburg. The word isicathamiya derives from the Zulu for "to walk like a cat", and refers to the characteristic choreography where members of the group dance with the tips of their toes skimming the floor, in a graceful, feline manner.
South Africa has traditionally been a country in which vocal performance is prized above drumming, although the group provided percussive effects through slapping their thighs and their distinctive tongue clicks. The evening came to a rousing finale when the band brought on the Mahotella Queens. The tenderness and togetherness of their performance are the polar opposite of the vapid posturing of most pop groups, and listening to the soft textures of their mainly bass harmonies is like being enveloped in velvet.
Seattle Pro Musica tackles big, beautiful Bach
Seattle Post Intellicence (WA):
"I adore Bach," says Seattle Pro Musica's artistic director Karen P. Thomas. "The music is perfection. If I could only take one piece to a desert island, it would be the B Minor Mass. Each time I pick it up, there's more to discover in richness and complexity." Thomas has been picking it up a lot lately. Under her direction, Pro Musica performs the Mass tonight and Saturday at St. James Cathedral with soloists Lisa Cardwell Ponten, Joseph Schlesinger, Samuel J. L. Rodarte and Erich Parce, and the musicians of Baroque Northwest.
She has allotted the Bach more rehearsal time than usual for a Pro Musica performance. "Most choirs understand Bach conceptually," says Thomas. "The music makes sense, which can be a large hurdle with new works where you have to help the choir get the concept and understand what the composer intended. The big challenge with Bach is that vocally and technically it's very demanding and physically it takes a lot of stamina. You have to work it into the voice, how to sing run after run. The Mass has one fugue after another, each one different in itself. It's the inner world of Bach at his height." The last time Pro Musica performed a large Bach work it was the St. John Passion in 1992. It's not that Bach is an afterthought for the choir, it's that it has such a wide-ranging repertoire, explains Thomas, who has conducted it since 1987.
Pro Musica's reputation of fine performance has earned it and Thomas many awards and grants, most recently a $70,000 American Masterpieces matching grant for 2006-2007, from the National Endowment for the Arts. Seattle Pro Musica is one of only seven recipients nationwide, and the award involves giving outreach performances of American choral music during next season around the Northwest, in communities that don't normally have access to this performance quality or type of programming; plus orchestrating a choral festival of American music in Seattle next summer.
"The American Masterpieces Initiative each year focuses on a different art form. This is the first time it has focused on choral music, and it's designed to take American music all over the country," says Thomas. She was notified a month ago, and the grant starts in June, "a compressed time line, but we have lots of possibilities for performances in mind."
May 17, 2006
The Johnson Girls sing sea chanteys
The Republican (MA):
Saturday's season-ending concert with The Johnson Girls at the uNi Coffeehouse in Springfield is a good opportunity "to get your feet wet" with five women who can raise the rafters with the best of them in the traditionally male musical domain of sea chanteys. "I had a vision many years ago and felt that although men were wonderful at singing these sea chanteys, it would be wonderful if a group of women could also sing them and bring a different life and perspective to them ... and there were no women out there doing it consistently," said Johnson Girl Bonnie Milner.
Sea chanteys and songs, as the first real "world music," captured the imagination of The Johnson Girls. And just as sailors who were heavily influenced by the songs they heard while traveling the world, each of The Johnson Girls bring their own special style to the ensemble. "Traditionally sung by deep water sailors, the chantey is a work song which set the pace and tone for work on the ship, whether the men were hauling up a line on the sail or heaving anchor," Milner said. "But maritime music is not just about work, and we perform sea songs associated with every aspect of maritime life including fishing songs, songs that were sung during the down time of work, and any kind of popular songs of the day heard in music halls on shore," she added.
Formed in 1997, The Johnson Girls - also including Alison Kelley-Kraan, Deirdre Murtha, Joy Bennett and Maggie Bye - have become the leading all-woman a cappella maritime group in the world, having headlined at Portugal's Festival of Ports in Lisbon, Britain's Sidmouth International Festival, Stontrace Shanty Festival in the Netherlands, New England's Mystic Seaport Music Festival and many others.
Their extensive repertoire of traditional and contemporary material includes sea chanteys and work songs of many traditions, African-American, Canadian, Caribbean, Irish, French, Italian, as well as songs from the inland waterways and fisheries, sensitive renderings of haunting ballads and laments, and hair-raising harmonies. The Johnson Girls have two Folk Legacy compact discs, "The Johnson Girls" and "On the Rocks."
Milner reflected on the importance of coffeehouses today and their past appearances in Springfield. "The uNi Coffeehouse is just a rare gem of a venue, the ambiance created by the setting itself plus the people who volunteer their time for the promotion of folk music combine for a wonderful evening of music. Our audiences are old and grayer today, and we need more venues like this," Milner said about exposing new audiences to folk music.
"The songs that various people sing, the old songs particularly, open up doorways to history, to all kinds of knowledge that people might find dry to read in books, but when it comes to life in song makes more of an impression from an historical perspective," she added. Milner said audiences should come to the coffeehouse on Saturday night "ready to listen and sing along." "Many of the songs we will be singing lend themselves to that kind of treatment," Milner said about the audience joining in.
May 16, 2006
Review - Vasari Singers/Backhouse
The Sunday Times (UK):
One sometimes writes, hyperbolically, of a performance moving one to tears. But at the end of Francis Pott’s The Cloud of Unknowing, genuine tears were shed. In part that was due to the circumstances. This 80-minute oratorio for choir was written in response to the wars and atrocities of the past five years, and specifically to the July 7 bombings in London.
What’s more, it was being given its premiere (in the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music) at St Pancras Church, close to where many were caught by the bus blast. And if memories of that day were not sharp enough in Londoners’ minds, the unscripted wail of police sirens during the quiet final pages of Saturday’s performance, subliminally reminded us that the cycle of hate and violence goes on and on.
That, and a heartfelt plea for reconciliation and tolerance, is very much the theme of Pott’s oratorio. But the work is far from being simplistic peace propaganda. The 48-year-old draws his texts from the psalms, war poets, Blake and other visionary writers, and a mystical medieval tract. These are arranged in such a way that mankind’s instinctive tendency to lash out at enemies or perceived enemies is continually, and often ironically, contrasted with individual man’s capacity for heroism and self-sacrifice, as epitomised by the Crucifixion.
Often the tenor (James Gilchrist, superb) takes the part of human conscience, crying in vain against the chorus’s war-cries. But in the glorious epilogue it is the chorus that calls for a “blind stirring of love”, in a stupendous outburst of rich polyphony — wave upon wave, gloriously sustained.
Pott’s musical style is tonally-based, perhaps a little unvaried in texture and articulation, but richly chromatic and laced with telling dissonance. It is also thoroughly grounded in the English oratorio tradition, with reminiscences of Elgar, Walton and Tippet.
Any choir would find the piece a challenge, not least to its stamina. But Jeremy Backhouse’s excellent Vasari Singers performed it not just accurately, but with bags of heart and soul as well. A sincere, intelligent and admirably unsensational meditation on the darkness at the heart of man, The Cloud of Unknowing deserves a concert life beyond this moving performance.
May 15, 2006
Eurovision Song Contest
It's time again for the very popular Eurovision Song Contest, an annual event I grew up with in England that is virtually unknown in the US. Held this year in Athens the competition is a big deal in Europe and really rather fun as each country submits a song and performer to the contest. This year has at least 2 a cappella entries, Estonian singing sensations Cosmos with "I Hear Your Heart" and Spain's very successful female group Las Ketchup with an a cappella version of Remedios Amaya's 1983 classic ¿Quién maneja mi barca?. Read an interview with Cosmos here.
Theft kills teen choir's special trip
San Jose Mercury News (CA):
For the students in St. Francis High School's chamber choir, it was the culmination of a year of hard work: a trip to Salt Lake City to perform with the prestigious Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They raised money through bake sales and performances, and for months practiced singing difficult Mozart pieces in Latin and German.
But last week, the students at the Catholic school in Mountain View learned there would be no trip. Most of the $13,000 they had raised on their own or collected from their parents had been stolen. "We all feel like we ran into a brick wall, and there's nothing we can do about it,'' choir director Margaret Durando said Sunday, the day the trip would have wrapped up. "We spent the whole year working toward this.''
Details of the theft remain sketchy. According to Durando, most of the money was taken by employees of a Florida-based company that organized the trip for St. Francis and dozens of other high school choirs across the country. She said she learned of the theft from the company's owner, who could not be reached for comment Sunday. Every year, St. Francis' chamber choir takes a trip, but this would have been the first time the group traveled out of state. It also would have been far more prestigious than past excursions.
The choir was scheduled to sing for two highly accomplished conductors, Will Kesling of the University of Florida School of Music and Mormon Tabernacle Choir Director Craig Jessop. "We've done local performances and competitions, but this was our big thing,'' said Douglas Gibson, a junior at St. Francis who has sung as a hobby since he was in elementary school. ``We were going over all this great music that our choir as well as other students were going to be singing with the orchestra. And we were also preparing some of our own music. A whole lot of work went into it.''
Most of the students stand to lose $400 to $500. Only the cost of the flight, minus a cancellation fee, is likely to be recovered, Durando said. Senior Tim McCrone, 18, said he couldn't believe it. `"You wouldn't expect someone to take money from a company doing choral trips for students,'' he said. Wendy Shue, a 17-year-old senior, said she was saddened less by the money than losing an opportunity to perform on a big stage. Because she turned in her check late, Shue lost only $150. "I was lucky," she said.
May 8, 2006
New Harmony Sweepstakes champs - Hi Fidelity
It was another night of memorable unaccompanied vocal harmony singing at the 22nd annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Festival's National Finals held this past weekend in the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright designed Marin Center in San Rafael, California. A full house of 2,000 a cappella fans enjoyed some of the top vocal groups from around the country, winners of the various regional events held earlier this year as they competed for the title of National Grand Champions. For only the 3rd time in the history of the event the top honors were taken by a barbershop quartet, the highly entertaining Hi-Fidelity from Los Angeles who wowed both the judges and the audience (they also won Audience Favorites) with their very clever and hilarious "Adams Family" routine. The rousing R&B sounds of the dynamic Regency took second and the Bay Area's vocal jazz quintet Clockwork took third honors.
As always thanks to all involved, especially to all those talented a cappella groups who participated in our concerts and who helped make our 22nd year yet another rousing success. Click here for the complete results and here for the evening's set list.
Hi-Fidelty, who are the current Barbershop Society Far-West district champions, are featured in a recent (painful!) commercial promoting the popular X-Box game “Tao Feng, Fist of the Lotus”. View the commercial here
May 7, 2006
San Francisco Chronicle (CA):
"The Persuasions! Aren't you that old doo-wop group?" Jimmy Hayes, bass singer with the Persuasions, chuckles as he recounts the oft-heard remark. "I can't count the times people have called us an 'old doo-wop group.' It's kind of insulting," he says. "We may be old, but we're an a cappella harmony group, not a doo-wop group. We look for songs that suit our kind of harmonizing and do all kinds of music, not just doo-wop."
In a career that spans 44 years, the Persuasions have lived up to their tag line -- "We still ain't got no band" -- with a powerful vocal sound that can raise the roof, as well as the spirits of the audience. They've put their mark on soul, R&B, rock 'n' roll, folk songs, blues, pop standards and gospel and produced their share of concept albums. They've done a Beatles album, a Grateful Dead album, a Christmas album and a children's record and have covered tunes by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Frank Zappa. Still, their most recent disc, "The Persuasions Sing U2," took a lot of people by surprise, including Hayes.
"David Chesky, the president of our label, called me and asked what I thought of U2. I'd heard 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' but didn't know much about the group. Chesky gave us a couple of CDs and, as I listened to them, I realized I'd heard the songs before. U2 writes songs about the struggles we all go through; they're like Irish guys doing gospel. We picked the songs we thought would suit us best and did the CD in three days."
The group arranged the tunes, building a rich harmonic sound on the foundation supplied by Hayes' impressive, rumbling bass. "We've been doing the U2 songs in our shows and getting a lot of 'wows' from the crowd," Hayes says. "We've made a lot of albums doing songs we choose, but when you do an album of Grateful Dead songs or Beatles songs or Frank Zappa songs, you pull in those fans. Those albums have done well for us, but they're not part of a master plan. I think our career is more a case of divine intervention."
The original Persuasions -- Jerry Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell, Jayotis Washington and Toubo Rhoad -- came to New York in the early '60s with dreams of a musical career. "When we met, we all had day jobs," Hayes says. "Joe was a butcher. Jayotis was a plumber. Toubo was a shoe salesman. Jerry was a store detective. I was an elevator operator. We'd play basketball after work at Washington Park in Brooklyn. After the game, somebody would strike up a song, and 15 or 20 guys would make a whole lot of noise. I could hear voices in the crowd that knew what it was all about, so one night I said we should all get together in my apartment and rehearse. Only four guys showed up, and we became the Persuasions."
Hayes says at first they were modeling themselves on such popular African American vocal groups of the day as the Drifters. "We had a great guitar player named Howard, but every time we had a gig, he'd have pawned his guitar or he didn't show up," Hayes says. "So we'd get our harmonies together and do what we had to do to entertain the crowd. Divine intervention told us we didn't need musicians. We've kept the a cappella flame alive for more than 40 years now, traveling the world and having a lot of fun doing it."
After the five friends started singing together, they landed jobs at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a project to advance the neighborhood's social, physical and economic development, headed by Robert Kennedy. The Persuasions became the "house band" for the group's fundraisers, including a gala at Lincoln Center. "We rented tuxedos and, man, were we clean," Hayes says. "We had Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad, backing us on bass, and we really made our mark. We put on a great show and got an encore. Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach were supposed to headline, but Dionne said she had laryngitis and didn't go on. I don't blame her. If I had to follow us onstage, I would have got laryngitis, too. That was the night we turned pro."
Divine intervention, Hayes says, also played a part in naming the band and finding its first manager. "We were always coming up with names, but the birds had all been taken: the Falcons, the Orioles, the Meadowlarks. The cars had been taken: the Cadillacs, the Imperials. I was browsing through the Bible and saw the word Persuader and knew we'd have to persuade the crowd to listen to an a cappella group. When I said, 'We're the Persuasions,' there was no argument. "We met our manager one night when we were singing in a subway station to get that echo effect. David Dashev and his wife got off a train and, although he'd never managed a group, he took us on. He eventually hooked us up with the William Morris Agency and got us our first record deal. He had us sing over the phone to some guy in L.A. -- who happened to be Frank Zappa. A week later he sent us a contract and six round-trip airplane tickets to come out to California and make an album."
The Persuasions went on to cut more than 20 albums and headline major venues all over the world, with minimal personnel changes. The group that will sing Thursday at the Swedish American Hall still has three original members: Russell, on second tenor and lead; Washington, second tenor, baritone and lead; and Hayes. New members are baritone B.J. Jones and tenor Ray Sanders, an original member of the New York doo-wop legends the Paragons. "We call B. J. the utility man," Hayes says. "He's from New York and a great singer who's been with the Drifters, Platters and Del Vikings."
The Persuasions are also in-demand session singers with a resume of A-list artists, including Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. "People say we have haunting harmonies," Hayes says. "That's because we don't use the high harmonies. We have low harmonies. That's why the Ramones hired me to put a low bass line on one of their songs. You look on the back of any album, you're likely to see the Persuasions."
May 5, 2006
Battle of the Vocal Chords
Marin Independent Journal (CA):
The musical term "a cappella" - singing without instrumental accompaniment - is Italian for "like in the chapel," a reference to restrictions on the use of instruments in medieval churches. The isolated vocal harmonies reveal the power of the human voice. Music fans will have the opportunity to experience this captivating sound Saturday when eight of the country's best vocal groups perform in Marin for the 2006 national finals at the 22nd annual Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival.
"I think people are drawn to the human voice in a way that is more powerful than other forms of music," says Eric Freeman, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer and member of the Oakland-based group Clockwork. "It commands attention. It's like concentrated entertainment. "There's something magical that happens when all five of us are singing together. It's the 'whole is greater than the sum of the parts' thing."
Clockwork, whose tunes are rooted in jazz, is representing the Bay Area for the second year. "Going to the show is the prize," says Freeman. "It's a 2,000-seat hall that sells out. I have yet to find an audience that's a quarter of the size and loves the music that much." Competing in the finals are professional, semi-pro, collegiate and amateur groups that won regional competitions in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
The performers, who share a respect for each other's music, develop a camaraderie. "During the show, you forget it's a competition," Freeman says. "I have a twinge when it gets to the competitive part because it feels weird to win or lose at an artistic thing. He is confident, however, about Clockwork's chances. "We feel pretty good, but we're trying not to think about it. To be honest, focusing on the competition takes the fun out of it."
San Anselmo's John Neal, event owner and promoter, partnered with the Mayflower Community Chorus in the late '80s and started the festival, which quickly went national. "We really are a Marin institution, especially because the contest grew out of a local chorus," he says. "We want to keep its community roots." The festival's variety of musical genres draws a large audience. "We offer a little of everything. That includes doo-wop, gospel, vocal jazz, contemporary pop and Christian music," Neal says, adding, "You'll see a 5-year-old sitting next to a granny sitting next to SOMA hipsters."
Returning champions Groove for Thought from Washington will host the show and perform. Of winning last year, member Jeff Horenstein says, "We haven't seen any benefit yet because we've been so concentrated on making our first CD, but we anticipate having it help us get in the door and market ourselves."
The contest is judged by a panel of five music industry professionals who grade the groups on musicality and performance. Groups perform a 12-minute set. Like "American Idol," the festival-goers get to vote for the "audience favorite." "We look for dynamism, intonation and technique," says one of last year's judges, David Worm of Oakland-based SoVoSo. "With a cappella, you have to be polished. There's no [instrumental] net, the pitch shifts constantly and the music changes with the other voices in the group. You know someone's got it when you can't take your eye off them in a performance."
The winning group receives free CD replication services and other prizes. Occasionally a cappella groups find relative fame, including SoVoSo, which performs extensively with Bobby McFerrin, and Naturally Seven, which signed with Sony Records, but it's uncommon. "The main prize is the glory of competing. We could have gone the 'American Idol' route and slicked it up with big prizes, but we made the conscious effort to keep it down home. When you offer big prizes, that tends to become the focus," Neal says. "This way, it keeps it fun." Freeman agrees. "It's a privilege to perform for this incredible audience who really wants to hear what you're doing. This is the pinnacle of this type of singing."
5,500 Troops to Sing Anthem A Cappella
The Moscow Times (Russia):
Thousands of troops will sing the national anthem a cappella as they march through Red Square on Tuesday, adding a new twist to the annual Victory Day parade that will celebrate the 61st anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany.
The May 9 celebrations will be toned down from last year, however, when a record 57 world leaders attended 60th-anniversary festivities. As in years past, Valery Gergiev will conduct a free concert, Mayor Yury Luzhkov will seed the clouds to prevent rain, and the day will end with dazzling fireworks displays.
Most Russians are hard-pressed to recite the words of the national anthem; the melody is the same as the Soviet anthem but the words were rewritten in 2000 to remove references to Lenin, the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.
Soldiers, however, do not have to make any extra effort as they prepare to sing because all servicemen are required to learn the anthem by heart when they join the military, said Colonel Vitaly Gusak, a spokesman for the Moscow military district. Servicemen also have to sing the anthem once a month during a drill, Gusak said. He did not say whether the anthem was sung without musical accompaniment.
A total of 5,500 troops are to sing the anthem a cappella during the parade, which will start at 10 a.m. and be broadcast live on state television. Red Square will be closed to the general public.
Not exactly the sort of opportunity that most of us wish for but what the heck. Oscar Mayer is having a national jingle contest rather grandiosely named "Sing the Jingle, Be a Star". There are $5,000 prizes however...
May 4, 2006
British Pilgrims' Grail: Real R&B (Don't Call It Doo-Wop)
New York Times
It can be dizzying to sit in a hotel bar in New Jersey listening to pinkish-white Yorkshiremen and middle-aged Cockney Londoners discussing the merits of 60's soul music in minute detail. About 400 British music fans invaded the Hilton hotel in East Brunswick for Northern Soul Trip USA, a weeklong pilgrimage to the land of R&B that ends today. Dancing to vintage singles and swapping bragging rights about their collections of the same, these fans claim to be "keeping the faith," cherishing and preserving American music that Americans have forgotten and discarded.
Peter Rosenbaum might have something to say about that. An American fan and collector of 50's doo-wop and 60's R&B, he formed and manages a vocal group, the Fabulous Soul Shakers, who recreated those sounds for the British fans in concert Sunday night. The first thing Mr. Rosenbaum wants you to know about the Fabulous Soul Shakers is, "This isn't an oldies act." He refers of course to those golden-oldies revues in which performers in their sunset years assay spiritless renditions of hits they first sang as teenagers.
The Fabulous Soul Shakers' repertory is certainly old; the songs are older than any of the five singers, none of whom has yet seen his 30th birthday. But the youthful energy they bring to gems like Sam Cooke's shimmeringly melancholic "Mean Old World" and the Cadillacs' doo-wop classic "Gloria" feels less like nostalgia than time travel. This, one senses listening to them, is how this music really sounded. The distinction was not lost on Kev Roberts, a British D.J. who organized Soul Trip USA and booked the Fabulous Soul Shakers to perform. Soul fans in Britain generally must endure "miserable tribute bands," said Mr. Roberts, who added that the Fabulous Soul Shakers would do very well on a British tour.
Mr. Rosenbaum began auditioning singers for the group in 2002. Growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the 1960's and 70's, he developed his love of R&B vocal groups while listening to the first oldies shows on AM radio. He avoids the term doo-wop, not coined until the late 60's; in its day the music was called vocal harmony, and the groups were known as bird acts for their tendency to have names like the Orioles, the Swallows and the Cardinals. Mr. Rosenbaum played in New York rock and punk bands as a teenager, while becoming an erudite pop-music historian and avid record collector. In the early 90's he started booking acts in bars and clubs, specializing in R&B legends like the Persuasions, Andre Williams, Swamp Dogg and Rudy Ray Moore (a k a Dolemite).
Inspired by the rockabilly and swing-band revivals, he decided a few years ago to rescue vocal harmony from what he called its "corny and square" golden-oldies stigma. He auditioned about 700 performers, he said, seeking "young guys who could sing both lead and harmony, and the less they knew about the music the better." He added, "I didn't want them starting out with bad preconceptions."
The current lineup includes the tenors Jason Cousins (known as J-Nyse), Ryan Shaw (B) and Craig Stagg (Sugar); the tenor-baritone Richard Tipton (Flyguy); and the baritone Bryant Washington (Sparrow). Mr. Stagg and Mr. Washington grew up in Harlem, Mr. Shaw in Atlanta, Mr. Cousins in Jamaica, Mr. Tipton in Mobile, Ala. All sang gospel or pop, and all have won or been finalists at Apollo Theater showcases. But vintage vocal harmony was new to them. "I grew up on Michael Jackson," Mr. Washington, 29, said. "I didn't know much about this music."
Mr. Shaw, 25, sang in gospel choirs from the time he was 3. He vaguely remembers the music he is singing now as records his grandmother played. Mr. Rosenbaum picks all the songs, preferring pretty ballads and midtempo numbers in which the tenors can shine over lush group harmonies: songs like Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops," Gene Chandler's soaring "Rainbow," the Falcons' aching "I Found a Love." But the typical set also features up-tempo crowd rousers like the Sharpees' "Do the 45," Major Lance's "Monkey Time" and Bill Pinkney's "I Do the Jerk."
Upbeat was good with the British fans, for whom soul music is synonymous with dance music. One might not know it looking around at the silver-haired men and primly dressed women, but in the late 60's many of them were teenage Mods who packed dance clubs in bleak industrial cities in northern England like Manchester, York and Stoke-on-Trent, creating what came to be known as Northern Soul. D.J.'s like Mr. Roberts, who came on the scene in the early 1970's, spun upbeat American R&B and soul 45's at amphetamine-fueled all-nighters (sort of primitive raves) while the kids gyrated wildly. "Think fast, faster and off the Richter scale," Mr. Roberts said of the preferred beats. Neil Jones, who is a D.J. for Northern Soul events in London, joked that the frenetic dance style resembled "a combination of 19th-century Negro culture and martial arts."
Mr. Roberts said that the scene died down by 1980, as the young Mods grew up, got jobs and had children. But nostalgia and "working-class camaraderie," he said, brought the dancers back together in the 90's, and Northern Soul has thrived since. Mr. Roberts is the D.J. for events in Manchester that draw as many as 1,200 dancers, he said, though today, with most of them ages 35 to 60, he plays "a lot more midtempo sides." Competing to unearth new singles that would keep the kids hopping, the early D.J.'s sowed the seeds for a vintage record-collecting craze that makes a Northern Soul event as much a swap meet as a dance party. Displaying a British obsessiveness, fans avoid well-known artists and hits for obscure singers and rare B-sides.
Groups whose names would ring few bells with soul fans in the United States — the Vel-Vets, the Tomangoes, Nosmo King, the Skull Snaps — dominate Mr. Roberts's collectors' guide, "Northern Soul Top 500," published in 2000. He conceded that though the list includes many underappreciated gems, there is also "some real garbage" that deserves its obscurity. At record fairs and on eBay, rare singles have fetched up to $25,000.
Mr. Roberts organized the first Soul Trip USA in 2004, shepherding 700 Northern Soul fanatics to Los Angeles. During this year's trip the group has spent its days in typical tourist activities — trips to the Empire State Building, Atlantic City and so on — and has reconvened every night in the Hilton for dance parties. In addition to the Fabulous Soul Shakers, live acts included Archie Bell of the Drells and three Philadelphia soul singers — Ronnie Walker, Charles Mintz and Bobby Cutchins — who are relative unknowns in the United States but have huge followings among Northern Soul fans. In their own way the Fabulous Soul Shakers can also be said to be keeping the faith. They have all become devotees through singing the old repertory.
"The singers drive the music, not vice versa," Mr. Stagg said.
Mr. Washington added: "For the artist singing the song, it was all about passion. Not like music today that's all about the beat and electronics." Mr. Shaw agreed. "Today's music is just drums," he said dismissively. "What's hot about it?" As for rap, he said: "It's just ignorant. And full of self-hatred." Perhaps Mr. Stagg summed it up for all concerned when he sighed, "I want to go back."
May 3, 2006
Vocal Point wins world championship
Deseret News (UT):
Vocal Point, the Brigham Young University sponsored a cappella group, sang its way to the world championship Saturday night in New York's Lincoln Center, when it took top honors at the 2006 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
The nine-member group won with a 12-minute competition set that consisted of a movie-related "THX Sound Effect," the "20th Century Fox Theme," an energy-charged original arrangement of the "Spider-man Theme," an original gospel ballad titled "He Is Born" and a swinging jazz standard, "Sing, Sing, Sing." To qualify for the finals, Vocal Point had to win first place in both the quarterfinal and semifinal competition rounds. Seven finalists emerged from a field of 150 groups from around the world. (Second place in the final competition went to Out of the Blue from Oxford University in England, and third place went to The Other Guys from the University of Illinois.)
"We were just thrilled to make it here," said Vocal Point member Jordan Keith. "It was an honor to share a stage with these other amazing groups. But winning is just unbelievable."
Other members of Vocal Point are Buck Mangum, David Anderson, Jimmy Dunn, Josh Rich, Ricky Parkinson, Ryan Innes, J.J. Haines and Dan Cahoon. Faculty director is James Stevens. The group has twice before won the right to compete in the ICCA finals, but in each case the finals had been scheduled on a Sunday, and as BYU has a long-standing policy of not participating in athletic or performance competitions on Sundays, on both occasions Vocal Point gave up its slot. This year, however, the finals were on a Saturday.
Vocal Point celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. It was started by two students, Bob Ahlander and Dave Boyce, in 1991 and was adopted by the BYU school of music in 1994. Since then, dozens of students have circled through the Vocal Point, which has become one of the most-requested performance groups on the BYU campus. Students devote 10-20 hours to the group each week; they do not receive scholarships or other compensation. Vocal Point has received three Pearl Awards from the Faith Centered Music Association and has toured throughout the country.
"We couldn't be more proud," says Alex Leeman, a member of the Vocal Point Alumni Association. "It's fun to see the little gig we started all those years ago, go so far. They do us proud. They have represented us, the university, the church and the state very well."
May 2, 2006
Barbershop luminary passes
Sadly this morning Ed Waesche, highly-regarded barbershop arranger and former President of the Barbershop Society passed away. He will be greatly missed by the barbershop community in which Ed's contributions as a leader, educator and booster are legendary.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir Progam Turns 4,000
KUTV (Salt Lake City)
It's a historic weekend for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as a very popular program hits the four thousand mark. Sunday morning the 4,000th broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word by the choir will take place. In honor of the momentous occasion, Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. signed a proclamation making April 30 Mormon Tabernacle Choir Day.
“Now therefore, I as Governor of the greatest state in America, do hereby declare April 30th, 2006 as Mormon Tabernacle Choir Day, and it is an honor and a privilege to be able to do so,” the governor announced.
For a radio and television broadcast to be that successful, you must have the right formula. Sterling Poulson sat down with Craig Jessop, conductor of the choir, who revealed one the secrets to their success. “To use an old Air Force role model, Glen Miller, his programming guideline, kind of sounds like a wedding, something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” says Jessop. “And so we try and always bring in something new to the broadcast to bring our singers fresh and alive, we always try to have the old standards, be it a hymn or a choral masterwork, something borrowed, yes, we borrow from the best, and when he says something blue, I think of something nostalgic, something poignant, something that brings back.”
Singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is certainly a high honor, and thousands of members of the choir have been singing to America every Sunday since 1929 when the first radio broadcast originated from the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Lloyd Newell, the current voice of the choir, says the purpose of “Music and the Spoken Word” hasn't changed through 4,000 broadcasts. “What we want to do in the Spoken Word is to give people just a few minutes of inspiration, lift their spirits, steady their hearts a little bit, give them some hope,” says Newell. “The music really drives home the message, but the Spoken Word also give them a message of hope and peace.” Lloyd says that when “Music and the Spoken Word” reached 1,000 broadcasts, the world was recovering from World War II. At 2,000, the civil rights movement was near its height in America. When broadcast number 3,000 aired, the information age was gaining momentum, as computers entered our lives.
The one thing that hasn't changed is the need for people to feed their souls. “I remember in 1968 being in Korea on a USO tour riding on a bus through soul, and on Armed Forces Radio here comes Music and Spoken Word,” recounted Jessop. “As an American, and as a Latter Day Saint, it brought tears to my eyes. It was a touchstone.” And it continues today as a touchstone for thousands. “I get letters from all over this nation of people who are in prison, people who are shut up in a nursing home facility, homebound, who this is their church, this is their religious service, this is their devotional for the week, Music and the Spoken Word,” says Jessop.
The producer of “Music and the Spoken Word,” Ed Payne, says that the advances in broadcast technology have certainly enhanced the show. “The most difficult part is making sure the technology doesn't overpower the message and the spirit that the choir tries to sing. If it becomes too evident, the technology, then you've done the wrong thing,” says Payne. They all say one thing you can count on for the next 1000 broadcasts is very little change in a very successful program “I think the advice president Hinckley would give us is to sustain, maintain, improve where you can, but don't change the format a great deal. The format is a good friend and has worked very well,” says Jessop.
May 1, 2006
Collegiate A Cappella Champs
The 2006 International Collegiate A Cappella competition was held this past weekend in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall and was won by Brigham Young University Vocal Point. Second was Oxford University Out of the Blue and third was University of Illinois Other Guys. The High School Competition was won by Cherry Hill High School West Men of Note.