It was the oddest mix of cultures that ended up producing one of the most revolutionary and popular vocal ensembles, one that is still vibrant and relevant today. In the early 1960s, Ward Swingle, an accomplished pianist from Mobile, Alabama, was studying in Paris. Wanting to meld his love of jazz, baroque music, and wordless singing, he brought together eight young vocalists and formed the first incarnation of the swingle singers. This followed on the heels of another French experiment, involving the music of Bach expressed in a jazz style. Pianist Jacques Loussier added bass and drums to the music of the great master, made it swing, and it was a resounding success. Many jazz artists, before and since, have had a special love and affinity for the music of Bach, so while this was not a new concept, it was very successful, and both Loussier and the swingle singers are still popular more than 40 years after their debuts.
There is a fabulous website devoted to the swingle singers that contains, among other things, a very comprehensive discography and history of the group – see http://www.swinglesingers.com/ [inactive 1/07]. (For the record, they lower-case their name, so we've done so here, mostly.)
The group evolved over the years to include baroque composers other than Bach and then other periods and styles, including contemporary compositions. Over time, they added words to their arsenal, abandoning their strict regimen of "oohs," "aahs," "doos," and other vocalizations and, eventually, branching out to repertoire consisting of works like Beatles songs, folk songs, and great American standards. The original French group lasted for about ten years, and since that time there have been many changes. Despite this, there is only one group at any time known as "the swingle singers," and their basic sound remains unique, fresh, and one-of-a-kind.
The current version of this historic and trend-setting group kicked off a 2005 United States tour with a performance at the McCrary Center on the campus of Elon University on March 10. They are now based in London, and except for a German and an Israeli, the rest of the group is from the British Isles. They are divided into the typical SATB configuration with two singers per part, but that is the extent of the similarity to a standard chorus. At Elon, they began with Bach's Fugue in G minor (the "Little Organ Fugue"), hearkening back to the classic, original group. Giving it a true jazz feel was the uncanny vocal imitation of bass and drums. I defy anyone to close their eyes and be able to tell the difference between those singers and an actual jazz rhythm section. Their programming was incredibly diverse as it ranged from Bach to Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, spirituals, folks songs, jazz classics, and everything in between. This is a group that uses limited and very tasteful choreography and stage movements that never distract from the music. Everything heard was produced by those eight voices only! One of the highlights of the first half was a vocal trio backed by a Renaissance consort of shawms, recorder, and percussion – and it sounded every bit as described. The lowlight of the evening was an unfortunate rendition of Ravel's "Bolero." While not quite as long as the interminable original, it was nearly that as each singer took a solo turn against the recurring rhythmic cell. At least this showed that they are human, as there were some definite intonation issues.
The first half ended with a selection worth the price of admission all by itself. Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" was presented as a big band arrangement. A soloist surrounded by three singers served as the rhythm section while the four others were on the opposite side of the stage like a trumpet section in a big band. It was an electric performance of a brilliant arrangement by Ward Swingle, who still does some work for the group and serves as musical advisor.
After intermission, the swingle singers were joined by the Elon University jazz vocal ensemble "Élan" for two selections – "The Lady is a Tramp" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right." They really didn't add much to the mix and seemed very stiff and out of place. The second half continued with a mix of standards, mostly, by Sondheim and Lennon/McCartney. Another superb arrangement by Ward Swingle was his take on the over-played "Send in the Clowns." His background for the soloist was a miracle of harmonization.
They ended the program with a work called "Country Dances," basically a hodge-podge of 19th-century American folk tunes. The group gave special recognition – as they should have! – to Philip Hartley, the sound engineer. The sound was perfect and pure, and it conveyed that special "Swingle" sound that anyone who has ever heard them will recognize. The attendees seemed almost like audiences for chamber music concerts, and the generally upward age... indicated that the name recognition of this group stems mainly from the '60s. I brought my two daughters with me and they were amazed and delighted at this group, which they had imagined would be old and stodgy!
Their final encore of the evening was a got-to-hear-it-to-believe-it and very funny rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee." We all buzzed off into the night with that special "Swingle" sound burned into our souls.