|The Royal Bopsters
Photo Credit: Janis Wilkins
When the ROYAL BOPSTERS return to London to play Ronnie Scott’s on 13 February 2019, they will bring with them a whole shed-load of jazz history. Peter Jones previews the gig:The American close-harmony quartet, the Royal Bopsters, are the latest group to carry the flame ignited by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross in the Fifties, continued by the Swingle Singers in the Sixties, and revived by the Manhattan Transfer in the Seventies. But the Royal Bopsters have gone a step further by featuring contributions from the jazz royalty referred to in their name: Jon Hendricks, Bob Dorough, Annie Ross, Sheila Jordan and Mark Murphy all appear as guests on their debut album released in 2015.
The group consists of Amy London (soprano), Holli Ross (alto), Pete McGuiness (tenor) and Dylan Pramuk (bass) – all of them prominent vocal jazz educators as well as performers and recording artists.
Photo credit: Ed Cohen
As well as harmony singing, they specialize in the tricky disciplines of scat and vocalese – scat being non-verbal vocal improvisation, and vocalese being the performance of lyrics set to existing recorded instrumental solos. These techniques first came to prominence when bebop was at its height – specifically in 1952, when King Pleasure recorded his famous version of Moody’s Mood for Love, with lyrics penned by Eddie Jefferson. They were based on tenor saxophonist James Moody’s solo on I’m in the Mood for Love, recorded three years earlier.
As any jazz singer knows, scatting is hard to do well, because you have to be as good an improviser as the musicians you are playing with. Vocalese is even harder, requiring a prodigious feat of memory as well as skill, since bop tunes are often sung at a terrifying tempo. The Royal Bopsters each have a lifetime of experience, but it’s always a high-wire act.
|Holli Ross and Amy London with Mark Murphy
Photo credit: Janis Wilkins
With a new album – Party of Four – planned for release some time in Spring 2019, we will soon have a chance to hear some of their new material, as well as to reflect on the passing of time since their first release because, sadly, only Ross and Jordan are still with us. Mark Murphy died in 2015, Jon Hendricks in 2017, and Bob Dorough only last April. But the good news is that sprightly 90-year-old Sheila Jordan will be appearing with the Bopsters at their Ronnie Scott’s show.
Holli Ross recalls working with Dorough on the new album. “Bob was 92 or 93 when he sang with us, and he was an angel to work with. He drove himself all the way to New Jersey from Delaware Water Gap, walked in, and did it in two or three takes. He stayed long enough to tweak anything he didn’t like on the recording, and that was that. He was amazing.”
In 2012-13, when the group recorded their first album, Mark Murphy cut no fewer than six tracks, four of which appeared on the album, with two more held in reserve. “It was only because they were both ballads,” explains Ross, “and we already had ballads from Annie and Sheila.” The forthcoming release includes a new tune written by pianist Steve Schmidt, Why Did You Do Me Like You Did, with lyrics by Mark Murphy. Another famous name on the new album is bassist Christian McBride, a big fan of the group, who has also been helping behind the scenes to get them some high-profile live dates in 2019.
Meanwhile Holli Ross is thrilled to be performing with Sheila Jordan in London. “I feel like I’m getting a lesson whenever I’m with her. The wisdom of her years and her generosity with musicians are things we can all learn from.” Sheila Jordan and Jon Hendricks both sang with Charlie Parker in the early ’50s, gold-plating the Royal Bopsters project with a sense of continuity and authenticity.
They will be joined at Ronnie Scottt’s by Nikki Iles on piano, Dave Whitford (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums) (pp)