Quire is a choir. RCA BGL1-1700 (1976)
CD reissue BMG Japan, BVCM-37305 (2002), barcode 4988017608432
1. Dave Brubeck Blue Rondo a la Turk
2. Erroll Garner Misty
3. Fats Waller Ain’t Misbehavin’
4. John Lewis Django
5. Billy Strayhorn by Duke Ellington Take the ‘A’ Train
6. Meade Lux Lewis Honky Tonk Train
7. George Shearing Lullaby of Birdland
8. Bill Evans Waltz for Debby
9. Gene dePaul by Erroll Garner Teach me Tonight
10. Duke Ellington Dancers in Love
11. Johnny Green by “Shorty” Nadine aka Nat King Cole Body and Soul
A jazzy ghost of the Paris Swingle Singers
23 January 2019
Fans of The Swingle Singers, here is exciting news. It is while I was working on my “ultimate” discography of The Swingle Singers that I chanced on a reference to this LP, from 1976. It seemed so exciting that I immediately looked for a used copy on eBay… and then I realized that it has been reissued to CD – in Japan only (not the first time that great stuff is reissued in Japan only…). Well, I broke the piggy bank for that one.
Ward Swingle, who had come to Paris somewhere in the early 1950s to study the piano with Walter Gieseking and had turned to session singing, doing background singing for the French stars of “chanson française”, had founded The Swingle Singers in 1963 with French singers including the angelically-voiced Christiane Legrand (the sister of composer Michel Legrand). 10 years later, feeling that the group had run its course and wanting to explore new musical pathways, Swingle disbanded the ensemble, moved to London and recreated a new ensemble with young British singers (variously titled Swingle II, The Swingles and The New Swingle Singers, before reverting to the original Swingle Singers in the late 1980s) – and indeed explored new forms: no more tackling only the great hits of classical music but also those of jazz, pop and Broadway (the albums of the French group Christmastime , in 1968 and American Look in 1969 had been harbingers), no more “dee-dumming” instrumental or (in the two above-mentioned albums) vocal music, but now singing the lyrics, and even adding especially-written lyrics, in the “vocalese” style brought to perfection by the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross trio (link will open new tab to Wikipedia entry), on music of instrumental origin, as on their album of ragtimes and early jazz piano, Rags and all that Jazz (1975).
But this album shows that the Paris group didn’t just die and disappear once and for all in 1973. Quire is a choir indeed, comprised of three former members, soprano Christiane Legrand, alto Claudine Meunier and bass José Germain, joined by tenor Michel Barouille (who, contrary to what the original LP claimed, was never a member of the Swingle Singers), under the direction of Christiane, with a rhythm section including some of the stalwarts from the Swingle era, Daniel Humair (drums) and Guy Pedersen (double-bass).
As Christiane recalls, in a manuscript note reproduced in the CD’s booklet, the album was born of her love for jazz piano music and pianists. How it was produced (through a painstaking process of vocal imitation, overdubbing and re-recording) is explained in a note published with the original LP:
And it was really an imitation game. As Legrand explains in her manuscript note, the two women shared the right hand (“of course, the pinky was for me” says Legrand) and the two men, the left one – and, apparently, it was a helluva job. Legrand laments “why are there so many octaves in a piano?“. In fact, they go as far as to reproduce the applause that opened and closed Gene DePaul’s Teach Me Tonight as played by Erroll Garner on the 1955 chart-making Columbia album “Concert by the Sea” (link will open new tab to YouTube, piece starts at 4:19), and Nat King Cole’s cover of Johnny Green’s Body and Soul played on July 2, 1944 at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles and published on the album “Jazz at the Philharmonic, vol. 5” (where, for contractual reasons, Cole was credited as “shorty Nadine” – link to the LP’s entry on discogs.com).
The result is impressive, exciting, and fun. I wanted to find out if the ensemble had really done what is claimed they did – overdubbing the original recordings. So I tested them on Brubeck’s Blue Rondo ala Turk (link will open a new tab to YouTube), putting both the original and the transcription on four tracks on Audacity:
Well, other than the fact that the cover makes a number of cuts starting somewhere around 2:30 in the moment of solo sax (if you look very closely at the tiny credits on the CD’s backcover, they do confirm that it is “a shortened re-creation of the original recording“; and indeed, the part cut was not the most exciting and original of Brubeck’s famous composition), yes folks, it is synchronous. But what playing both tracks simultaneously also reveals, is that the voices don’t really imitate the sound of the acoustic instruments (piano and sax), in the way Jon Hendrick’s vocalese arrangements or Mimi Perrin’s for the Double Six of Paris did. They retain a timbral color and (at least in the CD reissue, which may have been remixed) spatial location of their own. This is not meant as a criticism, but just to underscore that the vocal transcriptions are exactly that: not trying to make you forget that you are hearing voices rather than piano and sax, but changing piano and sax into the different timbres and colors of the voices. But at times, however, the opposite happens. Listen to the incredible solo of, presumably, Christiane Legrand shooting in the stratosphere at 3:48 in Brubeck’s piece, you’d think she was imitating the clarinet or trumpet piercing in its highest registers. No: it’s Brubeck’s piano.
I did the same kind of comparison with Erroll Garner’s Misty (track 2, link to YouTube), and there I’m not 100% sure the Quire does, at all points, exactly like the piano, but it’s close enough (credits again confirm: “the Quire version interprets sections of both the Octave and Mercury recordings”), and the way the sopranos manage Garner’s right-hand embroidery is fun. To suck out all the entertainment provided by Quire’s arrangements, it’s probably best to hear them with a knowledge of the original pieces, but one doesn’t have to either to enjoy the arrangements. They have a value of their own.
That said, after a while, however entertained, I find myself more impressed by the vocal pyrotechnics than truly seduced. There’s something clownesque to the stratospheric gamboling of the sopranos (try track 3, Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, or track 6, Meade Lux Lewis’ Honky Tonk Train), to get up there they need to pinch their voices in a way that evokes mice singing rather than sopranos. Exciting, fun and even funny, to be sure but… somwhat clownesque. Also, however entertaining they may be, well, sorry fans of Jazz, those standards don’t convey the same kind of enrapturing beauty as Bach’s Air on the G string or the slow movement from Mozart’s 21st piano concerto.
The credits on the backcover are not entirely precise, because they give only the name of the composer of the original standard, but not the actual performer whose cover of the standard Quire is imitating, only the title of the album on which it appears. So, for instance, you’ve got to know or find out that the album “Concert by the Sea” is by Erroll Garner, not Gene DePaul (track 9). If you are a fan and connoisseur of jazz, you probably know that Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” (link to Wikipedia) is the signature song he wrote for Duke Ellington’s band (and the Wikipedia entry is for those like me who DON’T know) and that the band recorded to great commercial success in 1941, but the version covered here is the one from Ellington’s 1960 album “Piano in the Background” (link to YouTube), which for the first 2:45 minutes does without the big band and is pared down to piano in the foreground and rhythm section.
It is the only LP that Quire recorded – one explanation I found online for their rapid disappearance (by Jazz journalist Ken Dryden) is that, due to the great amount of over-dubbing involved in the recording process, the group couldn’t perform live, unlike the Swingle Singers.
A few contemporary reviews:
Not every body liked it, however. See the review in the New York Times, 15 October 1976 (and very appropriate that it’s a dual review of the Quire LP and the latest by the group called then Swingle II, “Rags and All That Jazz“)
(and since I don’t know if that page will remain forever, here’s the review:)
“A dozen years ago, the two hottest groups in pop music were the Beatles and the Swingle Singers. The Beatles need no introduction. But the Swingle Singers? They were seven French singers and Ward Swingle, an American, who used such vocalized sounds as “dabba‐clabba‐dab,” “do‐do‐do” and “bum‐pah‐dah” to create swinging versions of Bach (their “Bach’s Greatest Hits” was on the top‐selling charts for more than a year), Vivaldi, Mozart and Chopin. It was a novelty that had great momentary appeal, but the appeal wore off as suddenly as it arrived.
Now, after a long silence, the Swingle Singers are back — as Swingle Belong with an offshoot group, Quire, directed by Christiane Legrand, one of the original Swingle Singers. This time, however, the material and (in the case of Swingle II) the approach is different.
Instead of swinging classical compositions, both groups have drawn on the jazz repertory—Swingle II focuses on piano pieces by Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Beiderbecke, while Quire draws on a wider range of jazz works, from Meade Lux Lewis’s “Honky Tonk Train” to the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Django.” In both cases, the groups are swinging pieces that are normally swung, so there is no longet a novelty element involved.
Quire uses its wordless voices in an attempt to create sounds that approximate the original instrumental recordings. One can admire the agility of the singers, and there is some amusement in hearing voices do antiphonal frogand‐bird‐call passages imitating Fats Waller’s organ playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” But the group is too often enslaved to the records it is copying, going so far on Erroll Garner’s “Teach Me Tonight” from his “Concert by the Sea” album to include the sound of waves and applause, as on the original.
But this is a pleasant and even sensible project compared with Swingle II’s “Rags and All That Jazz” for which Tony Vincent Isaacs has undertaken to write lyrics to such tunes as Waller’s “Alligator Crawl,” Morton’s “Chicago Breakdown” and Joplin’s “Easy Winners.” “Dabba‐dabba‐dab” and “do‐dodo” may work with swinging Bach. But words, unfortunately, convey meanings, and when the words Involve Danny Kaye, Mickey Rooney and Victor Mature in Jelly Roll Morton’s marvelous “Kansas City Stomps,” the results are disastrous.
The lyrics, in general, fight the well established impressions of the familiar melodies, and the fact that they are delivered in very proper, precise English accents does nothing to alleviate the agony they can cause a listener, while simultaneously diminishing much of the swinging qualities inherent in the material.”
JOHN S. WILSON
QUIRE. RCA (BGLI.1700) SWINGLE II: Rags and All That Jazz. Columbia (PC 34194).
You can’t please everybody.