All that a capella jazz!
GEORGINA BENISON –
What would you do with four men, three ladies and seven good radio microphones? Audiences at the Royal Opera House Muscat on Saturday afternoon experienced what could be done beyond the wildest imagination when it is the a cappella group, the Swingle Singers, on stage. London-based and launched in the 1960s, the Swingles are more of an institution than a group, as the present septet contains none of the original members, but it does include much of the repertoire, especially jazzy vocal adaptations of Bach keyboard works, earning their 1963 album the title, “Jazz Sebastian Bach”.
The programme opened with 7 chairs set on an empty stage. The newest member of the ensemble, Liz Swain, entered from stage left and, with microphone in hand, she threw back her head and sang the opening solo from British band Elbow’s, ‘Weather to Fly’. The other members sauntered on in relaxed, casual black attire and took their positions as — not backing singers — but an entire band, and joined in to an effortless but effective performance.
The Swingles are trained professional singers, but so much more: Sometimes they become an orchestra, sometimes a pop group or improvising jazz duo which includes bass and drum effects in a form we now know as beat-boxing. In their dizzying eclectic mix, their versatility is astounding and has stretched to the present, contemporary sound of some original compositions by members of the group, contributing to their incredible longevity.
Their second song, Corelli’s ‘Concerto Grosso’, reflected their origins in 1963 Paris where American-born Ward Swingle formed a group of session singers to perform vocal arrangements of the Baroque repertoire. And then two members retired from the stage to leave a quintet to sing their most iconic number, JS Bach’s ‘Air on a G string’. It was superb; perfect and poignant with some very high notes for Joanna Goldsmith. It melted into the full septet singing Bach’s ‘D minor fugue’, without apparent need for pitch or tempo cue, bringing more memories of the Swingle Singers on TV in Britain from those early days. The classical or instrumental numbers are sung without words, bringing the concept of ‘scat’ to a whole new level, while original or modern songs have words which Swingles sing with surprisingly adaptable vocal styles.
As if to emphasise the Englishness of their roots in the last century, the Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ was performed with Ontario-born Kevin Fox adding drum kit vocal percussion in a nostalgic arrangement, which morphed into some pure vocal jazz improvisation between duo Kevin and Edward Randell — a show stealer, including some early audience participation!
Giving the 3 ladies centre stage , came “Swingle Ladies”, a spoof on Beyoncé’s hit, “All the Single Ladies”. They sang and they wiggled and they gestured, for all the world having a great time with a pop-song firmly drawn from the 21st century. And staying in the 21st Century, bass singer Edward Randell introduced his own stunning composition which uses words, effects and bass line, “Reservoir Kids”. He is undoubtedly a multi-talented key figure in the ensemble, having joined in 2012 he hails from south London and a very English education.
Sara (Brimer) Davey is from East Tennessee and is a self-styled opera Diva. She took the lead in Donizetti’s Aria on some eye watering top notes which gave a nod to Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ aria at one point. After a well deserved round of applause she took the soprano line in the Swingle classic arrangement of Bach’s ‘Little Organ Fugue’ to further applause, and afterwards looked understandably both pleased with herself and exhausted. Joanna took the solo line in her own arrangement of Bach’s ‘Badinerie’ to complete the tribute to the Royal Opera House Muscat.
The Swingles are now an international ensemble with 4 English singers, two Americans and a Canadian. Their output also reflects their foreign tours, and ‘Lovers’ Desire’ is an arrangement of an Afghani folk song, transporting us to the mountains of that troubled country. “Wonderland” by Joanna Goldsmith brought us back to joyous England, and in another of Edward Randell’s compositions, the love song “Burden”, Sara Davey took the lead vocal.
Revisiting the Beatles, the concert was drawing to a close with a delightful arrangement of “Blackbird” and then the song I had been waiting for with baited breath: Swingles singing Piazzola’s “Libertango” in a brilliant piece of vocal ensemble as good as a string quintet with bandoneon. It was a perfect conclusion to a memorable matinee. But it was not the end. Two encores achieved even greater heights, with a hilarious rendition of Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova” — which may be known as the theme to Austin Powers — in which they clearly loved charming the audience with their tongue in cheek rendition.
Finally Stevie Wonder’s “Suspicion”, with tenor Jon Smith as lead vocalist, allowed the beatbox vocal percussionists to let rip in an exciting, sensational performance before we had to let them go. The public peeled out of the auditorium with smiles on their faces for this wonderful young ensemble. I hope they are invited back soon.