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The Royal Bopsters Keep Their Group Identity Alive

Amid personnel changes, the vocal group discusses jazz singing's past, present, and future

The Royal Bopsters from left: Pete McGuinness, Amy London, the late Holli Ross, and Dylan Pramuk (Janis Wilkins)
The Royal Bopsters from left: Pete McGuinness, Amy London, the late Holli Ross, and Dylan Pramuk (photo: Janis Wilkins)

At a quick glance, the Royal Bopsters’ new recording, Party of Four (Motéma), appears to be a straightforward continuation of their 2015 debut, The Royal Bopsters Project. The group remains a quartet carrying the torch of vocalese from Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the Manhattan Transfer, and New York Voices. Like their debut, the new album is highlighted by contributions from vocal legends Bob Dorough and Sheila Jordan. It also features a guest appearance by the great bassist Christian McBride, who shares the Bopsters’ fondness for soulful vibes and a sense of bebop cool.  

But look closer; a lot has changed. Darmon Meader, a co-founder of NY Voices who sang tenor on the first recording, has been replaced by Pete McGuinness. The new recording presents the quartet less as a “project” than as a working group. Dig a little deeper and that’s fraught too: The group suffered tragedy this spring when founding member Holli Ross passed away after a three-year battle with cancer. Thus, the Royal Bopsters circa autumn 2020 are in a vastly different place from where they were five years ago. One late September morning, McGuinness, soprano Amy London, and bass Dylan Pramuk jumped on a Zoom call to discuss jazz singing past, present, and future and their group’s role in it.

“The first record was really created as a celebration of these legendary heroes of ours,” Pramuk said. “We’re still celebrating them now, but we’ve come into our own as a group.” Pramuk has played an important role in this evolution, having written the arrangements for eight of the 12 new tracks. McGuinness, also a noted arranger, contributed the other four. “Swing-oriented, bebop-oriented, vocalese-oriented music—that’s still at the heart and soul of what we do,” he said.

But don’t mistake the Royal Bopsters for revivalists; that music is certainly at their root, but they’re seeking to branch out further. London said it goes beyond musical innovation: “I think the whole bebop movement represented freedom for the people that were involved in it. It’s a frame of mind; it’s a way of living.”  

She continued, “Pete is a composer and he brought an original called ‘Spring Song,’ and I wrote a lyric for it. It still employs the concepts of bebop—a shout chorus and a scat four-part harmony chorus, which is kind of a small-band, Tadd Dameron concept—but it’s brand new.”

Pramuk cited McGuinness’ arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes” as a prime example of their modernism: “We wanted to tackle more pushing-the-envelope compositions. Pete’s very adept at modern arranging techniques; that song is very intricately arranged.”  

McGuinness added, “A lot of groups have covered swing stuff and then some have covered pop music—New York Voices have with Paul Simon. But most vocal groups don’t touch someone like Wayne Shorter. That’s a little too abstract.”

The road ahead for the Bopsters has become more complicated in the wake of Ross’ death; her lithe alto was a cornerstone of the group’s harmonies. “We were not in a rush to replace Holli’s chair in the current climate, but we’re discussing it,” Pramuk said. “We’re working with some friends, and we will be ready when touring resumes.”  

In discussing their search, London described the sort of singer that could become a Royal Bopster. “We’re looking at altos that have been in groups before because it’s a specific skill,” she said. “Singing in a vocal jazz group is not so easy. The four of us are what I call choral geeks. Dylan and I started in choir in third grade—in America, it seems like third grade is the year where you join the choir—and then there are those that stick with choir all the way through high school. We love it, and we’re good at it. We can memorize, we can set harmonies, and then you hear jazz and you’re like, ‘Oh, vocal jazz choir.’ So it’s a certain kind of singer that does that.”

Going forward, the group wants to refine its style. “Our four personalities have come together as one,” Pramuk said. “And I see that that is going to continue to happen as we bring another member into the group and further develop. We’re already getting excited about creating the next set of material!”