The 11th annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival is the most expansive and diverse yet. Opening this Saturday night with living legend Dave Brubeck and continuing through the following week, this year’s lineup includes an impressive list of giants from across the jazz spectrum. From the smooth melodicism of Fourplay to the soulful pop of Ramsey Lewis, the vocal agility of Al Jarreau to the saxophonic vitality of Kenny Garrett, the Cuban classicism of Paquito D’Rivera to the bluesy sultriness of Cassandra Wilson, the folks at CNU have outdone themselves this time around.
Next Wednesday’s show featuring Garrett and the New York Voices is a case in point. Garrett is an alumnus of Miles Davis’ last regular working band who garnered kudos for his work on Amandla and is known for his hard bop stylings in a recording career that includes tributes to John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner. For the last twenty years, New York Voices have taken the legacy of vocal forebears like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and Manhattan Transfer to new heights, drawing from Brazilian, R&B, pop and folk influences as well as jazz.
“It started out at five years old,” founding member Kim Nazarian told me recently, “with my turntable and my mom and dad’s records. It’s kind of embarrassing—Boots Randolph, Al Hirt, Tijuana Brass and Wayne Newton. When my dad opened a Bar and Grill, he had a jukebox and I got all the 45s. So I was listening to whatever was popular at that time.
“I got my real stereo in my room when I was in middle school, and was listening to the Carole Kings and the Elton Johns. Then, in high school is when I really started listening to jazz. The conductor of the choir turned me on to the Hi-Los, the Swingle Singers, Singers Unlimited and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Being in musicals and being in the ensemble, singing the harmony parts— that’s where the bug first started for me. And in college, I was addicted.”
The seeds for the New York Voices were sewn at Ithaca College.
“Peter [Eldridge] and I were in the vocal jazz ensemble for three years together. Darmon [Meader] transferred in and was part of the vocal ensemble but not with us. We had graduated but he went through the same program.”
They were brought together for what Nazarian calls “our first post-college, pre-professional gig” as an alumni group playing Montreux and other European Jazz Festivals in the summer of 1986. Her future husband Jay Ashby and his brother Marty, now jazz director of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, were in the band.
“We were dubbed the New York Voices by Dave Riley, our college professor,” Nazarian said, “because there was the LA Voices at that time. He said ‘we need an east coast affiliate; we’re the New York Voices.’ When we decided to go professional, we tried to change our name but GRP [Records] said, ‘no, you’ve gotta keep that name—the Japanese are gonna love it!’"
Nazarian remembers the decision to turn pro after that initial European foray.
“We hustled,” she said. “We had a Town Hall performance in February of ’88. We had six weeks to prepare for this concert, writing, arranging and rehearsing. Calling every person we possibly could, even people we had no business calling. We were nobody but we had this prestigious gig, so we took advantage of the fact that we were performing at Town Hall in New York. We called every agent, manager, promoter, record company; we put a promo pack together, walked the streets, laid it on desks, put it in mail boxes.
“Once you play Town Hall, you can play the clubs, and we played every club that we could get in to. We were still building repertoire and we created some interest at a number of record labels. When we had to make a decision, GRP was the one we wanted to work with—they were ahead of the game as far as the digital sound and making CDs.”
Their GRP catalog remains popular with longtime fans—Meader’s frolicking original “National Amnesia;” a breath-taking romp through Earth Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World;” a sublime stroll through “Stolen Moments.”
NYV started out with five members, but for the last fifteen years has operated as a quartet with Lauren Kinhan in the fourth chair. One of their most successful undertakings was a 1997 recording of Paul Simon songs.
“That’s a lot of people’s favorite,” Nazarian said. “It was the most collective, creative project that we’ve done to date. Darmon is the primary arranger, but this was a more contemporary scene that we’d entrenched ourselves in and we all had ideas. It was a longer process, to sit in a rehearsal room and hash out ideas. We had to find material that we could all fit comfortably on, and also material that we would want to sing for another twenty years.”
The group’s latest recording, A Day Like This, is another strong outing. With an irresistible a capella version of Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and material by Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, the CD stands as a sampler of the eclectic setlist we’re likely to hear next Wednesday. In my Port Folio Weekly review last fall, I wrote, “Feel-good music doesn’t feel any better than this.”
As the New York Voices celebrate twenty years in the business, Kim Nazarian remains optimistic about the future of jazz.
“April is National Jazz Appreciation Month,” she said. “I’m doing a concert at my son’s elementary school; we can’t just talk about it, we have to do something. New York Voices feels very responsible for enriching our educational system with whatever experience, knowledge, wisdom, advice that we have to pass on to budding musicians. Out in the Pacific Northwest we just played Jazz Alley for four days. Most of our audience was high school and college jazz choirs. They put their kids on a bus and bring them to a jazz club. That’s a great sign.”
Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Saturday, April 19 – 7:30 pm
Dave Brubeck Quartet/Jae Sinnett Trio
Sunday, April 20 – 3:00 pm
Wednesday, April 23 – 7:30 pm
Kenny Garrett Quartet/New York Voices/CNU Jazz Ensembles
Thursday, April 24 – 7:30 pm
Ramsey Lewis Trio/Fourplay/Paquito D’Rivera
Friday, April 25 – 7:30 pm
Al Jarreau/Cassandra Wilson/Cindy Blackman Quartet
copyright © 2008 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.