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A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square - Bending Reality to my Will

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November 25th, 2009


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04:00 pm - A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
BlueStreet Jazz Voices sang in Bellevue College's "Jazz Summit" last night. BC's vocal jazz choir "Celebration;" and "Genesis," the Mount Hood Community College choir led by the jazz arranging genius Dave Barduhn, get together twice a year (usually) to sing for each other. If the schedule permits, BSJV is sometimes added to the mix.

Listening to the choirs, I was struck by one of those thoughts that seems totally obvious once you have it, but felt like a rather profound insight. If you want to divide the choral world up into sections, "church choir" is the largest chunk, "school choir" is next biggest, and everything else can be swept into "other." (No, that's not the insight. I'm getting to that.)

With a tiny (relatively speaking) number of exceptions, church choirs aren't really about vocal excellence as such. They're there to enhance the worship experience, to celebrate a relationship with God, and to provide an opportunity for its members to contribute to the service. It's (again, typically) a limited-commitment mechanism for people to sing. Church choir dynamics are actually quite interesting, but not related to my little 'aha!' moment, so I'll resist the temptation to further blogorrhea.

So here's the first half of my insight: The long-term quality of a school choir is almost entirely driven by the skills of the director. The entire membership is replaced every 2, 3, or 4 years (depending on the school: community college? High school? 4-year university?), so the best vocalists represent whatever the director could get out of them in the n years he or she had available. Unless the ensemble is tiny (like a quartet), the incoming skill sets year to year will have some great singers, some good singers, and some adequate singers, and every year, the director has to start over, mixing the new members into the choir, and growing the choir's skills through the year.

When I was a member of choirs (and bands) in school, I certainly recognized the process of my own personal abilities growing from year to year, and I really didn't think about the static nature of the ensembles. For example, I wasn't good enough to be in the "A-grade" vocal jazz octet at PLU, so I sang in the secondary octet. I probably could have made the top group the following year, but I'd also learned what an incredibly grueling schedule the "A" choir had, and decided to do other things instead. So as I got better year to year, I'd move to the next tier of ensemble, rather than make the ensemble I'd been with, better.

BC's choir was outstanding last night, and directly or indirectly, director Tom Almli is why. Indirectly, the choir draws exceptional vocalists because they want to sing in a choir as good as that. Also, I found out that the choir meets for 90 minutes every day, plus regular sectionals. That's a remarkably heavy schedule, much more than any ensemble I was part of in school. However, I don't think he would have the talent pool he does, or be able to get away with that intensive a rehearsal schedule, if he wasn't an outstanding director in the first place.

Our director, Ken Wilson, also teaches at BC. (Which, by the way, was, until recently, Bellevue Community College. I'm told they just recently metamorphosed into a 4-year institution, so they're dropping the "Community" from the name.) His courses are primarily classroom-based, and he teaches private lessons.

So on the face of it, it would look like BlueStreet Jazz Voices would be at a distinct disadvantage. Our director isn't teaching vocal jazz daily like the other directors, and we only meet once a week. Can we really sing in a concert with these other groups and not embarrass ourselves?

Yes, for at least four reasons. One obvious one is, just because Ken isn't directing a vocal ensemble right now doesn't mean he doesn't know his stuff. In fact, he really does. Having spent a total of eleven school-years in jazz ensembles (two ensembles simultaneously in high school, plus three years in college), I know enough about jazz to know when somebody's teaching me well, and Ken's definitely doing that.

The second reason is that "once a week" is a bit of a red herring. Celebration meets five times as often, but they're not logging five times the hours per week, since our weekly rehearsal is 2.5 hours long, and we usually have a 3-4 hour Saturday rehearsal roughly once a month. Celebration is logging a bit more than twice our rehearsal time, not five times as much.

Three. As I mentioned before, I joined this ensemble with eleven years of jazz experience, and about eight years of choir experience (plus 3-4 years of private voice lessons in college), and I'm pretty typical. Ken doesn't have to spend anywhere near as much time teaching his choir how to sing; we spend most of our time working on singing together; on matching our vowels and synchronization. Also, even if a college student was a fanatical lover of jazz and had been singing and playing intensively for most of their life, the throat they've got is still only 18-22 years old. Most voices continue to get richer, more resonant, in short, better through a singer's second and third decades. Unlike, say, sports, singing does not favor the young.

And last, but certainly not least: we don't graduate. The choir does, of course, experience membership rollover, but it's much much less than a college choir has. I think about half of the current BlueStreet Jazz Voices has been in the choir since the first or second year. We're now in our seventh year.

In college, motivation to really excel tended to be driven toward doing well at the spring festival or the like. In BSJV, I know that extra effort and time I put in to help the choir improve will still be there next year; it will become part of the permanent DNA of the choir. In fact, BSJV is already clearly and dramatically better than it was when I joined less than two years ago.

I've never been in a choir (or any musical ensemble, really) that was steadily, audibly improving over a period of years. The Seattle Choral Company was getting better while I was a member, but slowly enough to not be very obvious. BSJV is getting better *fast*.

That's the other half, by the way. A school-based choir's overall performance is regulated almost entirely by the ability of the director. A community-based choir's performance can take advantage of the talents and efforts of its long-term members in addition to what the director brings to the mix. Obvious, but only retrospectively.

The current item in our repertoire that really brings this home to me is "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." I was rather surprised and a little scared when Ken handed this chart out. I'm sure this song existed before the Manhattan Transfer recorded it, but it's pretty hard to prove. In the incredibly unlikely event that somebody reading this doesn't already know about the Transfer, they are to vocal jazz what Yo-Yo Ma is to cellos, what Magic Johnson is to basketball, what Coca-cola is to soft drinks. And "Nightingale" is their signature tune, making it the best song of the best group in vocal jazz. When we perform it, at least 99% of our audience is going to be able to compare it to the Transfer's rendition.

If it were a totally different arrangement, it wouldn't be so intimidating. But the Transfer's arrangement, by legends Phil Mattson and Gene Puerling, is part of what makes their version so definitive. It's incredible; full of the weird jazz dissonant chords never heard on Broadway, but so perfectly placed in this song.

It's also freakin' hard. A comment on the SheetMusicPlus web site says "[This arrangement] is not for the faint of heart, but rather the most talented and experienced of singers. The chords are fabulous, the parts challenging and the results potentially super-rewarding!" That's about it, except he forgot to include "and the standard to which it will be held, super-duper-high."

Not surprisingly, when we were first learning it, everybody naturally followed the Transfer's phrasing and style. We all know it so well, after all. But soon Ken started reshaping it. What do we got that the Transfer don't got? More voices. I believe I mentioned earlier that Ken is really really good; he nailed that home with me when he started reworking Nightingale. The Transfer's version is smooth, angelic, ethereal; and never goes above mezzopiano. Not only do we hit two notches above that in three spots, but one of our fortes also includes moving from a rich blended tone to a brighter brassy note. Twenty-four voices can create a rich, resonant, full-throated chord in a way that four voices, no matter how talented, cannot duplicate. Ken takes full advantage of the fact he has a choir, not a quartet, to reconstruct Nightingale and make it a fresh reinterpretation of the Transfer/Puerling/Mattson tune. It might still be the Transfer's arrangement, but the performance is BlueStreet's. Even in rehearsal, a chill runs down my spine when we sing it.

OK, I know I'm unavoidably biased, but I still can't imagine just about anybody who likes listening to music not enjoying one of our concerts. Even if your normal taste is trance or arias, BlueStreet isn't doing complicated artsy stuff. Yes, some of the songs are as old as your grandparents, but it's music from the pop charts of the time, and some of our songs were on the Billboard Top 10 list just a few decades ago. It's a great mix of fun tunes, with big band, gospel, lounge music, vocalese, and pop shuffled together.

And, at least for our next concert, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."



Our next concert, btw, is Sunday, December 6 at 6pm (as of this writing, the TIME of the show isn't on our website, yikes!), in North Seattle, at First Christian Reformed Church. And it's free.
Current Mood: crazyproud
Current Music: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:robespierrette
Date:November 26th, 2009 03:54 am (UTC)
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You're quite right about longevity trumping intensity. There are things you find out over the years, that a school choir director will never get to work with.

I recently noticed - with a bit of shock - that I've been singing with my group for over 9 years! And it was only in the last year that we discovered that our rendition of "Come Againe" by Dowland only reaches it's full potential if played as a comedy piece. :) Something that was kind of "pretty" a couple of years ago can now bring the house down..
[User Picture]
From:ladyjestocost
Date:November 26th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)

Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square

(Link)
I'm not sure just how old it is, but I've heard it on "Swing Years and Beyond". My guess would be 1920-1935.

Oops - completely wrong - Wikipedia reveals a date of 1940, with the version I heard probably being by Vera Lynn.

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