One of the best jazz vocal groups to emerge from the 1990s, New York Voices is marking their 25th anniversary with a live CD, Live with the WDR Big Band Cologne. Originally recorded in Germany in 2008, the album features the quartet in fine voice backed by one of the best jazz ensembles in the genre. Instead of performing only jazz standards, New York Voices selects an intriguing mix of jazz, modern classics, and a few original compositions, all adding up to an evening resplendent with technical prowess.
Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge clearly admire Paul Simon’s poetic, category-defying music, and he is represented here through “Baby Driver” and a gorgeous rendition of “I Do It for Your Love.” On both tracks — and on every other cut — the WDR Big Band Cologne serves as an equal attraction, their arrangements and subtle backing simply breathtaking. On numbers like Annie Lennox’s “Cold,” the band demonstrates their ability to play blues as well as traditional jazz.
As their name suggests, New York Voices is about tight, complicated harmonies, and they showcase their talents on an a cappella version of “Almost Like Being in Love.” Just listen to the introduction of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” and revel in their extremely sophisticated harmonies. After this quiet beginning, the band kicks in full force as the group’s perfect vocal blend scats over the saxophone solo. They also swing on “Love Me or Leave Me,” the powerful horn section egging on the quartet.
A few original tunes succeed in this setting, such as the Eldridge-penned “The World Keeps You Waiting.” A mentor and frequent collaborator of jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit, Eldridge possess a gift for writing contemporary jazz tailored to a specific vocalist’s strengths. Here, he co-authored the tune with Kinhan, and her lead vocals effortlessly glide over some unusual chord changes.
Unlike other concert performers, New York Voices demands undivided attention from their listeners. Their four-part harmonies work together in ways seemingly simple to the “naked ear,” but a closer listen reveals otherwise. Most of the songs on Live with the WDR Big Band Cologne clock in at over six minutes, with two surpassing the ten minute mark (“Stolen Moments” and the Eldridge/Meader-penned “The Sultan Fainted”). Their renditions resemble meditations more than just basic performances. The New York Voices members leisurely explore every melody, linger over lush chords, and expand upon moods and themes already present in the lyrics. With the Big Band’s intricate and precise backing — Michael Abene serves as musical director, principal arranger and conductor — they group invites the audience to appreciate jazz on a technical level rather than simply an emotional one. Need another example of their advanced vocal skills? Look no further than their rendition of James Van Heusen’s “Darn That Dream,” a track featuring a challenging melody that the group navigates with apparent ease.
The pairing of New York Voices with the superior WDR Big Band Cologne results in a thoroughly fascinating listening experience. It documents a performance that encourages the audience to think as well as feel, to deconstruct standards and hear the group reassemble the melodies and harmonies. The flawless Big Band serves them well, and enhances their tight vocal blend. Pick up Live with the WDR Big Band Cologne and appreciate how New York Voices has matured since their late-80s beginnings.