Jazz Concert Review: The Swingles — The Music is A Lot Better Than the Name

By Steve Provizer

The current incarnation of the Swingle Singers, just called Swingles, exemplifies why the group has survived 57 years.

The Swingles at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, MA, on December 13. Group Members: Federica Basile, Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson, Imogen Parry, Oliver Griffiths, Jon Smith, Edward Randell, Nick Girard.

The Swingles. Photo: Swingles.co.uk.

Very unfortunate name for a group, I know. Fortunately, the music is a lot better than the name. The fact is, the group comes by the name honestly, as it was founded by a man named Ward Swingle. Swingle had genuine bona fides in the world of group jazz singing. He was a founding member of one of the finest vocalese groups in jazz history, the Double Six of Paris.

In 1962, after the Double Six disbanded, Swingle started the Swingle Singers and, while their repertoire was eclectic, their lyric-less renditions of J.S. Bach — often with a jazz feel- — turned out to be the material that generated the group’s wider renown. For my money, some of that material works and some of it cloys. Do-de-do’s replicating 16th-note runs — even if accurately done — have always tried my patience. But the slower Bach pieces, which simply showcased the wonderful voices and impeccable intonation of the group, always sounded lovely to my ears.

The current incarnation of the Swingle Singers, just called Swingles, exemplifies why the group has survived 57 years. As has been the case over the course of the decades, they cast a wide net for auditions and have come up with wonderful and creative vocalists, able to write some of their own tunes as well as to make adaptations attuned to newer approaches to a cappella singing. They have also made good use of technology to cultivate a contemporary listenership.

The Swingles are ubiquitous online, using any and all social media platforms to make it known that they perform and record music from a wide range of genres. I have my own predilections, but my franchise here is to write about this concert, which was tailored to the Holidays. I found the song choices eclectic and solid. None were cheesy and all were performed compellingly.

The seven-person group, composed of four men and three women, performed a fair number of well-known seasonal songs: “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Christmas Song” (Chestnuts roasting…), “Greensleeves” and “We Three Kings.” Some of these were performed fairly straightforwardly, albeit with reharmonizations and occasional repeated bass figures that set the melodic line off in new ways. “O Come Emmanuel” was performed with a beautiful intro and coda. There were other wrinkles as well.

We have grown familiar with the “beat-box-er” in a cappella music; a hit and miss device, to me. During the evening, Swingles sometimes used it as one normally might expect — as a rhythmic driver — but in “We Three Kings” they adroitly stretched the concept. Through the use of subtle vocal sounds by several members, they created a wonderfully evocative sonic picture of a caravan moving slowly through a Near-Eastern desert.

The group also performed material that was not necessarily Holiday-related, but which they felt inspired feelings of introspection or uplift appropriate to the season. These included Afghani and Basque songs and — look out — “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So,” a tune closely associated with Ray Charles, and “This Christmas,” written by Donny Hathaway. The Swingles also reached back into their old repertoire and performed two Bach pieces. One was “Air From Overture #1,” known as “Air on a G String.” The other was a faster piece, “Badinerie.” As per the sentiments I expressed at the beginning of this essay, it was the slower “Air” that showed the group off to best effect.

Throughout the concert, the Swingles utilized the technique of “looping” to buttress the sound. For those who don’t know, this means recording the band and playing a section back in a loop so the performers can be freed up to sing new parts. One of the Swingles clearly explained this technique. Throughout the evening, in fact, each member of the group — all quite personable — was given an opportunity to speak to the audience, telling us something about him or herself and about the music. It generated a solid sense of community inside the Shalin Liu concert hall. The final song of the evening, “Auld Lang Syne,” further deepened the connection between performers and listeners.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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