The Swingle Singers: Compilation Album (Reflections / Live at Ronnie Scotts). Swing CD1/2 (1989), no barcode
Recorded 1985 (Reflections), 2 May 1987 live at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, London
A rarity – but not the most significant of the Swingle Singers
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 8 October 2012. Partly revised on 17 January 2019
This CD is a relative rarity, and it took me some time and patience to find it at a reasonable price – but ultimately, I did. It was the first album to be released on the Swingle Singers own label, SWING CD 1/2, and unlike others (Swing CD 4 “1812”, Swing CD 5 “Bach Album”, Swing CD 8 “The Story of Christmas”, and Swing CD 15 to 20), it wasn’t later licensed and reissued by other labels, like Virgin, Signum or the label Primarily A Cappella. It compiles the near complete contents of two previously released recordings, “Reflections” from 1985 and “Live at Ronnie Scotts” (recorded at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, May 2, 1987). The latter was originally issued in cassette form only, no LP. As for the original LP editions of “Reflection”, there must be an unknown story to that. The recital was released only, it seems, on two way-out labels, Belgium’s Ultraprime 331806 – cassette 7331806 -, and on Balkanton of Bulgaria, BTA 12134, see entry on the invaluable discogs.com with links to these various editions; on the LPs the group was called “The Swingles”, as with the albums recorded for Polydor in 1986, “Christmas” on POLD 5206 and “Instrumentals” on POLD 5205, and the cover art of the Ultraprime edition is very similar to those Polydor albums, in fact the photographer is the same, Andrew Earl; but I haven’t found trace of a Polydor release, of which the Ultraprime LP would be a licensed reissue. After some head-scratching I conjecture that the Ultraprime “Reflections” is a 1987 reissue and the Balkanton an earlier (and original) release. The Ultraprime photo and credits spill the beans: they are in fact plain wrong! The credits correspond to the 1987 ensemble, as they sung at Ronnie Scotts. But in 1985 and on “Reflections”, Olive Simpson was still soprano 1 (Helen Massey would join only in 1986 with the Polydor albums), and she is duly credited both on the back of the Balkanton album, and on the CD reissue. Soprano 2 and basso 2 on “Reflections” and the two 1986 Polydor albums were Jacqueline Barron not Deryn Edwards and Simon Grant not David Porter Thomas, but although Edwards and Thomas are credited on Ultraprime’s backside I’m pretty sure it is actually Barron and Grant on the picture. Finally, note that on the CD reissue the order of the tracks is reshuffled, and three out of the original album’s 14 are omitted (“Round Midnight”, “L’il Darlin'” and “It’s Allright With Me”) obviously because all three are reprised in the Ronnie Scotts recital.
The 1974-1989 period of the Swingle Singers, after the original, Paris-based ensemble founded in 1962 by Mobile, Alabama-born Ward Swingle disbanded, is not well documented on CD. Before, the group recorded for Philips and most of the records made then have been reissued. From the 1990s onwards they were published or reissued by Virgin and the various other labels mentioned above. But of their first London period, when they had assumed various titles like Swingle II, The New Swingle Singers or The Swingles, before reverting to the original name, and recorded mainly for CBS then EMI/Moss Music Group and Polydor, there’s only a compilation by Sony that sounds directly dubbed from the LPs, “Swing Sing“, a compilation with part of their Polydor Christmas album on Spectrum, and a live concert from 1982 belatedly released on the Swingle label, SWING CD R01 (Live in New York).
“Reflections” was the first album to be recorded after the retirement of founder Ward Singer from the ensemble, although he still acted as arranger (of 11 tracks of “Reflections” and three from “Live at Ronnie Scotts”) and music adviser. The personnel constantly evolved, but there was enough overlapping for the whatever “traditions” to be passed on, and for the ensemble always to retain its unique vocal color. The only exception is between 1997 and 1999 (and the albums “Screen-Tested”, Swing CD 12 and “Ticket to Ride: A Beatles Tribute” CD 15 – there was never a CD 13, and CD 14 is a compilation), when something dramatic must have happened, because the complete personel changed. In the mid-1980s the vocal octet was comprised of Olive Simpson then Hellen Massey, Jacqueline Barron then Deryn Edwards, Jean Carter, Carol Canning, Andrew Busher, Jonathan Rathbone, Mike Dore, Simon Grant/David Porter Thomas.
The original Swingle group had invented a unique way of scatting the classics, e.g. singing wordless and slightly jazzified arrangements of classical instrumental pieces (Bach, Haendel, Vivaldi, Mozart, the Romantics…) using various “dee-dum” techniques of sound-production invented by Swingle to emulate the sound of the original instruments. Although the first two tracks and track 11, all from the earlier album “Reflections”, illustrate that style (Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, Bach’s Organ Fugue BWV 578, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee), these two albums are typical of their later evolution. First, they added on to their repertoire arrangements of the pops of the day, pop music, jazz, soul, ragtimes, Broadway, film music, traditional and vernacular (the latter the Paris-Swingles had in fact tackled as 1969, with their “American Look” album). Second, rather than scatting even the arrangements of songs (which they did in the Paris period, as on the 1969 American album and their 1968 Christmas album, Christmastime), they now sung the words.
By so doing, I find that they lost part of what made their originality. Instead of being a group with that unique scatting technique, they became one excellent vocal octet – one among others. The all-Jazz/pop Ronnie Scott recital is very typical, in that, to the voices, it adds an instrumental section made of keyboard, drums, bass guitar, tenor saxophone, trumpet/Flugelhorn, acoustic and electric guitar. While the later Swingle ensemble dispensed altogether with any instrumental backup, scatting instead the drums and bass (you can hear an anticipation of that style on tracks 1-11 from the earlier album “Reflections”, totally “a cappella” – the three omitted tracks did have an instrumental accompaniment, limited to piano and double-bass), the original Paris-based ensemble had used a jazz rhythmic section (drums and double-bass) that gave the jazz color, but this is far more abundant and “mainstream”. The Ronnie Scotts recital is agreeable and entertaining, no doubt, but it’s just that: because of both choice of repertoire and arrangements, it is a (mostly) Jazz/pops album by a vocal octet and instrumental ensemble, and there’s not so much that makes it recognizable as specifically a Swingle Singers album. How much you will like it depends then on how much you like the pop hits in vogue in the mid-1980s. It is not by coincidence that my favorite is Ward Swingle’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” (track 17): it dispenses with the instrumental ensemble altogether. The final song, “Tuxedo Junction” (track 22) is fine also for all its scatted rhythm.
But I prefer the “Reflections” album (tracks 1-11), which offers a fine representation of the Swingle Singers various styles, both in choice of repertoire (mixing classical and pops) and approach (a cappella and instrumental, scatted – Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture Bach’s Fugue and the final, dazzling Rimsky-Korsakov Flight of the Bumblebee – and sung). Among the “sung songs”, my favorite aren’t the Broadway or the Sinatra crooning type, because, as well-sung as they are, they make the Swingle Singers sound here just like a fine a cappella group, not like the unique Swingle Singers. But the more dynamic ones are very entertaining (“Come Live With Me” track 4 – an exciting arrangement by Ward Swingle of a poem by Marlowe -, “Oh Johnny!” track 6, “Fascinating Rhythm” track 7, and Swingle’s medley of “Country Dances” track 10) and come with their share of “dee-dums” under the lyrics.
I used to feel very frustrated that the CD reissue omitted three tracks, because they were reprised on the Ronnie Scotts recital: I surmised that they would have been sung “a cappella”, rather than with instrumental accompaniment. Finally (this is an addendum from January 2019), I found the Ultraprime LP on eBay. Not such a great loss after all: “Round Midnight” and “L’Il Darlin'” are sung with piano accompaniment (and double-bass in the first) and “It’s Alright With Me” is the one song sung “a cappella” at Ronnie Scotts also, so the differences are not so radical. Of course both sopranos had changed in the meantime, and since they have prominent solo roles, it’s fascinating to hear the timbral differences between Olive Simpson and Helen Massey. Massey (and it is she singing on “Lil’ Darlin'” has a slight lisp that I find adorable, and a slightly more “mezzoish” timbre. I have no preference, both sing with sexy abandon. By the way, for the CD reissue of “Reflections”, there’s been considerable remastering and remixing. The sound of the LP is fine and I’d be happy with it if I had only that, but the CD is fuller, stereo spread is way larger, and stereo effects have even been added, for instance in Rimsky’s “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”, where the voices whirl around the spectrum. In some tracks I’m even under the impression that some underpinning vocal parts have been added.
As usual with the albums of the Swingle Singers, the product info is very terse about the origins of the songs (many of which had their flash of glory in the 1970s and are now forgotten), and if you are not very knowledgeable in Jazz and pops from the 1970s and 80s or earlier you need to do some research on the Internet. Here at least they give the family names of the song writers, which makes the search a bit easier.
4. “Come Live With Me” is an original composition of Ward Swingle, on words by Marlowe – you know, the contemporary of Shakespeare (you know, the contemporary of Marlowe) ?
5. “All the Things You Are” by Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) and Jerome Kern, written for the musical “Very Warm for May” (1939)
6. “Oh Johnny!” by Abe Olman and Ed Rose, Bonnie Baker’s greatest success, recorded with the Orrin Tucker Orchestra in 1939
7. “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”, Gershwin 1924. Interesting case: originally a song with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, brilliantly arranged by Bill Russo for the Big Band of Stan Kenton, now brilliantly arranged by Swingle for voices with Jon Hendricks contributing brilliant “vocalese” lyrics expanding Ira’s.
8. “Just One of Those Things”, Cole Porter for the 1935 musical “Jubilee”
9. “London by Night”, Carroll Coates, made famous by Sinatra in his album “Come Fly By Me” (1958)
10. “Country Dances”, a medley of traditional American songs
Live At Ronnie Scotts:
12. “Route 66” by Bobby Troup (1946, famously recorded the same year by Nat King Cole, but the Swingles’ arrangement is much more pop)
13. “Children of the Ghetto” by Chris & Eddie Amoo from the album “4 from 8” (1977) by the Black British soul band “The Real Thing”
14. “L’il Darling” by Lambert Hendricks & Ross on their 1958 album with Basie (the second one, Sing Along With Basie). Very typical to see the “new” Swingles pick up that song, because it was Lambert Hendricks and Ross’ unique invention to do exactly the opposite of the original Swingle group, inventing lyrics on arrangements of instrumental pieces, the so-called jazz “vocalese” (a tradition pursued in French by the Paris Double Six, in which Swingle had originally been a member, Les Double Six). The Swingle’s arrangement is fine, but there’s even more sensuous abandon in the original.
15. “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” by Joni Mitchell (Lyrics) and Charles Mingus (music), from her album in collaboration with Mingus, titled “Mingus” (1979)
16. “Mean to Me”, a popular song with music by Fred E. Ahlert and lyrics by Roy Turk, published in 1929 and a standard recorded by Doris Day (you can see her on You Tube, an excerpt from the movie “Love Me or Leave Me” , Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt
17. “It’s All Right with Me”, Cole Porter, from the 1953 musical Can-Can, also a standard recorded by Eroll Garner, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald (an early video with Nat King Cole is on You Tube), Tom Waits. This one is the only purely a cappella track from the Ronnie Scotts recital
18. “Moon Over Bourbon Street”, Sting, from his 1985 album “The Dream of the Blues Turtle” (his first solo album after the disbandment of The Police) . The arrangement sung by The Swingle Singers has its own charm, but it’s no match for the original song; they could be singing anything – he’s truly the vampire (or is it a werewoolf?)
19. “Boplicity”, originally a Miles Davis-Gil Evans collaboration on the album “Birth of the Cool” (1949), adapted in French vocalese by Mimi Perrin from Les Double Six, and I realized only after establishing that that The Swingle Singers were singing in French. They should have translated it back in English.
20. “Round Midnight”, the famous Thelonius Monk 1944 standard, lyrics (later) added by Cootie Williams and Bernie Hanighen
21. Strange – and misleading – that the product info should credit the song “Sweet Nothing” to “Self”. That would be “Sweet Nothin’s”, by Ronnie Self, which the recording by the 16-year old rockabilly singer Brenda Lee turned into a chart-making success in 1960. But in fact that’s absolutely not the song sung by The Swingle Singers. They sing, indeed, “Sweet Nothing” by the group “Working Week”, a British jazz-dance band of the 1980s and 1990s, from their 1985 debut album “Working Nights”, all titles by the band members Larry Stabbins and Simon Booth. Sometimes when I do all that research, I wonder if it is really worth it.
22. And finally: “Tuxedo Junction” is a song co-written by Birmingham, Alabama composer Erskine Hawkins and saxophonist and arranger Bill Johnson. Julian Dash is also credited for the music. The song was introduced by Hawkins’s orchestra. Lyrics were by Buddy Feyne. This original version, by the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra rose to number 7 on the national hit parade. Glenn Miller and His Orchestra had the most successful recording of the song in a best-selling record (Billboard Number 1) , RCA Bluebird B-10612-A, in 1939 in an arrangement by Glenn Miller. It was covered by numerous bands and Swing orchestras and solo artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Frankie Avalon and Joe Jackson, and became the theme song for The Manhattan Transfer, first recorded on their album The Manhattan Transfer in 1975″. Thanks Wikipedia for making these searches so easy!
Ultimately, I’m not sure it is worthwhile to break one’s piggy bank for this CD. Except for Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me”, The Ronnie Scotts program doesn’t represent the Swingle Singers at their most significant and, to me, enjoyable. But the Porter song is also on the Live in New York 1982 CD, together with most of the songs and pieces from the “Reflections” album that are significant and/or highly enjoyable: the Bach Fugue (although in the earlier arrangement, without the jazzy vocal percussion), the Rimsky, Ward Swingle’s original composition, Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm and the Country Dances medley (as well as Porter’s “Just One of those Things”, and Lambert Hendricks & Ross’ “Lil’ Darlin'” that’s also on “Live at Ronnie Scotts”, with Ward Swingle playing the piano but purely vocal percussion rather than the real percussion of Ronnie Scotts). The later group (with the help also of the Ronnie Scotts warmer sonics) is a more sensuous ensemble (only four members are shared, two gals and two boys) and the country dances are sung with slightly more verve and character, but it’s something you notice only on careful comparison, and then, at the time of writing, the 1982 recital can be found for much cheaper on the marketplace. The Bach Fugue was a favorite of the ensemble, I’ve counted in all six different recordings of it. The most accessible version is the one on the Virgin Bach album, Bach Hits Back, in the later arrangement with vocal percussion and double bass (where it comes also with the song from the Anna-Magdalena Bach notebook). The Rimsky is another Swingle’s favorite, featured on the Live New York 1982 and Reflections but also three other albums, but one has never been reissued on CD and the two others are on the Swing label, difficult to find on the marketplace and when you do, often selling expensive. The Overture to the Marriage of Figaro is on the 1972 Joy of Singing album of the Paris Swingles, with real percussions: for once, I prefer the later version, and much to my surprise the group hasn’t re-recorded it, not even on their 1991 Mozart album on Virgin for which it would have been an obvious candidate. But ultimately the only track from “Reflections” whose absence would be regrettable is “Oh Johnny!”. It’s fun, and apparently the Swingles have not recorded it elsewhere.