Singing may be the most personal form of musical expression. But New York Voices have taken the team approach for 25 years, carving out their own niche in the sometimes inhospitable world of the jazz marketplace.
“It’s the blessing and the curse of singing. The best thing about it is you just feel like you’re letting people into who you are, but it’s also really terrifying. There’s nothing to hide behind,” says founding member Peter Eldridge. “Your pants are down and you’re right there for all the world to see. I’ve grown to enjoy that vulnerability, but it took a long time."
Composed of Eldridge, Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, and group leader Darmon Meader , the quartet riffs on a mixture of favorites from the jazz songbook, original tunes, and the occasional contemporary-pop cover. (Original members Caprice Fox and Sara Krieger are no longer with the group.) The vibe is an amiable, accessible take on vocal jazz, but the Voices have proven quite adaptable, fine-tuning their musical project to suit a series of successful collaborations.
They won a Grammy for a live album recorded with the Count Basie Orchestra, and a Latin Grammy for their featured work on an album of Brazilian jazz by Paquito D’Rivera. For shows at Scullers on Friday and Saturday, they’ll be backed by a traditional acoustic trio.
The group has a “book” (or repertoire of original arrangements) for work with big bands and for an orchestra environment as well. The latter was coaxed along by calls for collaboration from the Boston Pops.
“You get a phone call and there’s a big band from Estonia that wants to hire you. You wonder what in the world that’ll be like,” remarks Kinhan with a touch of amusement, “but this band was unbelievable. Music that was created here in the United States is adored everywhere. We go to Moscow all the time now and work with a big band there.”
For a group without a backlog of hits to “coast” on, Eldridge says, these collaborations offer a chance to “go back to school” and refine their approach.
“When we got to start working with the Basie band, we thought we knew how to swing. Then you stand in front of that band and you say, Whoa, we've got some work to do,” Eldridge says with a laugh. “We’re still always tweaking stuff and listening and fixing things, and trying to get pretty deep and dirty with this music.”
They show their flexibility in the studio as well. In response to a record label suggestion that they take the oft-trod route of a Gershwin or Cole Porter tribute, the group opted instead to record an album of freshly arranged Paul Simon songs.
Though there certainly are predecessors in the world of vocal jazz groups — Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and the sometimes-jazzy Manhattan Transfer are obvious touchstones — New York Voices are carving out a distinct territory. Several great acts with a true band identity have emerged from the fusion scene, but acoustic jazz groups are more often dominated, at least in terms of public perception, by the big name of a leader.
The Voices stake out a middle ground between the worlds of the full band and the vocal soloist. Alternating leads, achieving complicated harmonies, dropping back to support an instrumental soloist, these four are quick on their musical feet in pursuit of the group whole.
“Vocal jazz has a bad rap for being very surface-y. It can be flashy,” Eldridge allows, “and not really that deep an art form. I’d like to think we give it a little richer context.”
They haven’t chosen an obvious path to success, but their adaptable artistry has by now created a long-running institution. They also collaborate on each other’s solo projects, and team up for an annual “vocal jazz camp” at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. New York Voices celebrate their anniversary year with a new live album and a live DVD (culled from separate concerts), and a Christmas record later in the year. They plan to convene in the studio next year to record another album featuring original material.
“We’re a four-headed artist. It’s a very specific musician and singer who can do this,” Kinhan says, “because you have to be able to be both a soloist and an ensemble player. And you have to do it seamlessly. And you have to want to do it. You can’t bring a star game to this setting. You have to understand that the ensemble is the artist.”