Live with the WDR Big Band Cologne
New York Voices

It doesn't get any better than this, with the superb singing and vocal arrangements of the New York Voices, and Michael Abene's tailor-made charts for the WDR (Western German Radio) Big Band Cologne. This is the New York Voices' first full live recording, taken from a 2008 concert in Cologne, Germany during their 20th anniversary tour. The vocal quartet of Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader, and Peter Eldridge perform standards, tunes by Oliver Nelson, Annie Lennox, and Paul Simon, and two originals including the lengthy showstopper "The Sultan Fainted." While the Voices' own vocal arrangements deserve high praise, they in turn respect and admire the talents of Abene, who produced their first album in 1989 (when they were a quintet), and has been music director and main arranger-conductor of the WDR Big Band since 2003. "Michael is an old-school cat who has really lived this idiom and really knows his band," says Meader, "stimulating the players with the intricacies and blends in his charts, the challenging lines....And we function in the arrangements almost like another section of the band, with our four-part harmony similar to what a sax section would do."

"Baby Driver," the first of two tunes from the 1998 New York Voices Sing the Songs of Paul Simon CD, has a brassy orchestral opening that sets up the quartet's skillful scatting interlude and Eldridge's silky lead vocal, as the others' provide vibrantly harmonized responses. Paul Shigihara's animated guitar solo rocks out, followed by Karolina Strassmayer's wailing alto pronouncement. The Voices then bounce around select phrases of the lyrics in a stirring give-and-take finale. Eldridge masterfully unveils Mark Murphy's words to Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" before the group completes them as a unit and next scats lyrically in harmony. Solos from trombonist Ludwig Nub and altoist Heiner Wiberny are honey-toned and biting respectively. Meader's vocal arrangement for the succeeding finely-woven take on the lyrics is smoothly ingratiating right up to its impeccably delivered summation. Lauren Kinhan's inviting lead vocal for "Love Me or Leave Me" has a bit of Broadway swagger to it, and her cohorts striking asides pack a punch, as does Andy Haderer's trumpet improv. Kinhan's lucid, well-sustained scatting, both solo and in delightful exchanges with Haderer, help to keep this track in lofty swing mode clear through its closing celebratory intertwining of voices and orchestra.

On "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," the four-part harmony, with Nazarian up front, displays the group's shining rapport. The big band's entry comes in dynamic contrast, surging as all concerned swirl in a dazzling segment. Paul Heller's robust tenor is also neatly juxtaposed against the Voices' sultry commingling. Meader engagingly sings Annie Lennox' "Cold," enhanced as always by the other's vocalizations, as well as by Frank Chastenier's swelling organ fills and varied orchestral exclamations. Shigihara's biting, bluesy guitar solo is a highlight of this appealingly textured interpretation. "The World Keeps You Waiting," a moody piece composed by Eldridge and Kinhan, features the latter's lustrous voice fully integrated into an intricate vocal arrangement credited to the co-composers and Meader. Heller's tenor solo maintains the striving urgency that has been established, and the Voices' rhythmic, wordless unison offerings that carry out the selection possess an enticing Brazilian flavor.

Simon's "I Do It for Your Love" is given an ethereal full band prelude prior to Nazarian's ardent presentation of the ballad's lyrics, with more than suitable accompaniment by the other Voices and elaborations from the orchestra. Olivier Peters penetrating, melodic soprano journey precedes a vocal-centric reprise that is both mellow and sleek. The Voices' scatted intro and insertions during Eldridge's charming treatment of the lyrics to "Darn That Dream" perfectly capture the mood of this standard. Jens Neufang's bass clarinet solo supplies an effective earthbound variation, after which Meader scats nimbly and infectiously, and trumpeter John Marshall creates a flowing, logically constructed improvisation. Meader and Marshall trade intensely until the Voices scat their way back to the forefront in both unison and counterpoint. The harmonious recap of the lyrics is capped by the sinuous participation of Neufang.

Meader's a cappella arrangement of "Almost Like Being in Love" is so radiant and precise that the Voices should perhaps consider doing an entire album, unaccompanied, of standards and even doo wop classics. They've certainly got the chops, feeling, and compatibility to easily pull it off. "The Sultan Fainted" is an ambitious work by Meader and Eldridge, with the former's vocal arrangement. After Peters' lively EWI prelude, the track maintains a Chick Corea Return to Forever vibe both melodically and rhythmically for its 12:26 duration. Following Nazarian's recitation of the lyrics, Peters returns with an even more energetic contribution. Meader's expert, buoyant scatted exploration, and Chastenier's pulsating Michel Camilo-like piano solo, are separated by the same catchy, prevailing motif from the Voices. Drummer Hans Dekker and percussionist Pernell Saturnino lock horns enthusiastically in extended interplay, and then comes a rousing vocal/orchestral recap with Decker continuing to flail away beneficially.

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Scott Albin