Arriving at Pizza Express last night to see the Swingle Singers for the first time, I was greeted by friends who were as giddy as school children in anticipation of the gig. By the end of the night, I was grinning like a Cheshire cat along with the rest of the packed, enraptured audience.
The latest young incarnation of the a-capella group has contemporized the sound from its Jazz Sebastian Bach origins. Their extensive and virtuosic vocal techniques incorporate beatboxing and an uncanny ability to imitate string and horn sections. Arrangements of contemporary pop works are harmonically strong and technically challenging. The first set included several tracks taken from their latest album, Ferris Wheels. I was particularly moved by Clare Wheeler’s arrangement of the Joni Mitchell classic, Both Sides Now. Clare draws out the richest harmonies from the original song and deftly creates a dramatic backdrop that subtly supports Lucy Bailey’s lead vocal.
The Cheshire cat grins were mainly induced by the theatrical and witty charts in both sets, such as Pete Churchill’s arrangement of Get My Boogie Down, a well deserved feature for bassist and beatboxer, Tobias Hug. In his words, ‘ not so much a bass solo as a low frequency massage’. With this as in many of their numbers, the performance was enhanced by amusing and intelligently placed choreography. Their take on jazz standards such as Chick Corea’s Spain, with an excellent scat solo from Clare Wheeler, plus swing numbers, Fascinating Rhythm and Count Basie’s It’s Sand, Man were firm audience favourites. Noticeable due to the intimate nature of the venue, the frequent interaction within the group is a pleasure to see and the amount of fun they appear to have on stage contagious.
The highlight of the evening was a preview of an exciting new project, Romeo ♥ Juliet, devised by sought after composer/arranger, Richard Niles. Romeo ♥ Juliet is a Swingles unique rework of the music of West Side Story, dramatically supported by text from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to create a new theatrical work. A creative collaboration between Niles and the Swingle Singers, the arrangements are strikingly different, to showcase the many colours, textures and moods the Swingles can create with their voices. We were treated to a handful of pieces, including an impressive Overture arranged by Niles, introducing the group as the ferociously talented musicians they are, through to emotional renditions of Somewhere and I Have a Love, with arrangements by Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson and Clare Wheeler. The preview culminated in Tonight, as never heard before, having been given the Earth, Wind and Fire treatment by Richard Niles.
Plans are underway for the project to develop into a full theatrical showpiece for the Swingle Singers. Speaking to Richard after the gig, he informed me that Romeo ♥ Juliet was part of a three-pronged approach to lift the Swingles into the upper echelons of success. Other plans include work with the Richard’s newly revitalised Bandzilla, a 17 piece jazz orchestra working with names like Tim Garland, Guy Barker and Gary Husband. There was also a hint at a single release for the Swingles. I for one would buy it.
Review by Fran Hardcastle