The title track of New York Voices' new album, Reminiscing In Tempo (Origin), was one of Duke Ellington's first long-form compositions in the 1930s. (Mel Tormé added the poignant lyrics in 1962.) It's an apt tune for a group now celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Founded at Ithaca College, New York Voices remains one of the world's foremost vocal jazz groups. The original quintet became a quartet with its current lineup in 1994: tenor vocalist and saxophonist Darmon Meader, the group's main arranger; baritone Peter Eldridge; and sopranos Lauren Kinhan and Kim Nazarian.
Over the decades, the group has toured and collaborated with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Bobby McFerrin, Paquito D'Rivera, Jim Hall and the Count Basie Orchestra. Its longevity is all the more remarkable considering that its four members maintain separate careers as artists and jazz educators, and live far apart: Nazarian in Ohio, Meader in upstate New York, Kinhan on Long Island and Eldridge in New Hampshire.
"We're really the Eastern Time Zone Voices now," Meader joked during a recent chat with DownBeat. "But that doesn't quite have a ring to it."
Nazarian, speaking from her farm near Oberlin University (where her husband, trombonist/producer Jay Ashby, teaches), said, "The key word in our lives is balance, juggling ... our personal and professional lives. Even though the Voices is not our primary money-maker, it's our priority job. No one wants to give up the legacy we've established as a group. We respect and love each other enough to make it work."
They all have active careers in music education, too. Meader is an Artist-in-Residence at Indiana University; Eldridge teaches full-time at Berklee College of Music; Kinhan teaches at New York University; and Nazarian teaches at Ithaca College, often conducting voice lessons over Skype. In addition, the group leads two weeklong vocal jazz camps, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and at the Bavarian Music Academy in Marktoberdorf, Germany.
The group has become like an extended family over the years. "There have been more ups than downs," Nazarian recalled. "We've never canceled a show, despite illnesses. Once, in Indonesia, Peter was so ill for a concert that he sat on a stool, and Lauren and I held him up. Also, I delivered my son the day after a concert in Utica, New York."
Meader's favorite memories include having the chance to work with high-profile artists he admires. "I once had something like an out-of-body experience going over our charts with Ray Brown. ... Just the other day [after an August all-star Brazilian concert at the Hollywood Bowl], Quincy Jones came backstage and asked us, 'Who does your arrangements?' And he gave me a fist bump. Moments like that!
"The Voices takes up a smaller percentage of our time than in the past," Meader continued. "But our longevity means we have a big repertoire to choose from. And, when we get together, we're like dance partners who have worked together for years. There's a fair amount of practicing in hotel rooms. Sometimes, we fly into gig a day early just to have some time together."
The new album displays the group's restless eclecticism. Co-produced by Meader and Grammy-winning engineer and longtime friend Elliot Scheiner, it includes vocal arrangements of tunes by Chick Corea ("Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly"), Fred Hersch ("A Dance For Me"), The Beatles ("In My Life") and Ivan Lins ("Answered Prayers" [É De Deus]), as well as two interpretations of works by Cuban classical composer Ignacio Cervantes. The stunning opening track, "Round, Round, Round (Blue Rondo À La Turk)," is a version of the Dave Brubeck classic with lyrics by Al Jarreau, with additional vocalese lyrics by Kinhan.
"We like to pick more obscure things, or incredibly challenging things, like 'Blue Rondo,'" Nazarian said. "In 30 years, I think it is one of the hardest things we ever recorded. Memorizing those lyrics is mind-boggling—I don't how Al Jarreau did it. After three decades, we're still challenging ourselves. We're not lowering keys, not slowing down tempos, not taking the easy road. ... We do what we teach. We try to set the bar and be the example of what we ask our students to do."
The essence of New York Voices, Nazarian added, is that "we can sing what we record. Our performances often are better than the recording. Our original goal, our career goal, is to bridge the gap between instrumental and vocal jazz. We are always referencing instrumental influences in our arrangements, in our performances and in our teaching."