There are countless flash mob a cappella performances on the internet. And then there is the one by the Swingles on May 21, 2010, on a London Underground train: Quincy Jones’ 1962 Soul Bossa Nova (with a snippet of Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight thrown in). Musically and vocally free, fun and flawless, it shows the style that has made The Swingle Singers’ sound the gold standard for a cappella vocals for the past 50 years.
“The vocal and choral world has changed considerably in the last 50 years,” writes the Chicago Sun-Times. “But The Swingles have managed to hold onto to their distinctive niche and continue to thrive.”
Wrote the Washington Post, “Whether performing with the National Symphony Orchestra or in a cappella settings, The Swingle Singers…[are] never less than dazzling.”
The Swingles perform in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium on Thursday, April 7, at 7 pm. In addition, they will coach local barbershop favorite, The North Country Chordsmen, as well as two Dartmouth student a cappella groups in a master class on Wednesday, April 6, 5:30 pm, in Faulkner Recital Hall of the Hop. The public is welcome to observe the master class for free.
None of The Swingles’ current seven members—topnotch singers from Great Britain, Canada and the US—were alive when the group began in 1963, started in Paris by Ward Swingle, an American jazz singer, arranger and composer who had been a founding member of the fabled Parisian jazz vocal ensemble Le Double Six.
What Swingle and his singers found was a sweet spot linking jazz and Baroque music, singing with light, effortless syncopation and pure vocal tone, free of vibrato, blending like woodwinds. The original “Swingle Singers” (the group’s founding name, later changed to The Swingles) included the sweet, accurate and unbelievably agile soprano of Christine Legrand, sister of famed composer Michel Legrand. The group caused a sensation with “swung” scat versions of works by J.S. Bach.
That distinctive sound and musicality has stayed intact over the decades, as The Swingles’ repertoire has grown to include songs in many languages and from all genres, new singers have replaced retiring members, and a succession of musical directors have succeeded Ward Swingle, who retired as director 1985 and died in January 2015. Legrand set the standard for the lead sopranos that succeeded her, with her ability to sing pitch-perfect runs at blistering tempos without breaking even the tiniest musical sweat. Bach’s Badiniere, with a soprano solo loaded with wide intervals and tricky ornaments, remains a Swingles signature piece.
The Swingles created an international sensation with the group’s first recordings, Jazz Sebastién Bach, Going Baroque and Anyone for Mozart, the first three of what now is a 50-album discography that has netted five Grammy awards. Collaborations with the Modern Jazz Quartet and Michel Legrand led the group into new repertoire, including an interpretation of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. In 1968, they recorded Sinfonia with the New York Philharmonic, written for them by contemporary classical composer Luciano Berio. The group continues to perform this work regularly on stages around the world.
In 1973, the group disbanded and Swingle relocated to London, eager to tap into the English choral tradition. Over the decades and under Swingle’s successors, the group has extended its repertoire to include songs with lyrics, pop covers, movie themes and more. For decades, the group’s a cappella numbers have included vocal imitations of bass and drums; and in 2007 the group collaborated with beatboxers on the album Beauty and the Beatbox.
The worldwide enthusiasm for a cappella singing—sparked in part by the TV show Glee and the Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 movies—has opened a new chapter for The Swingles. The singers appeared several times on the soundtrack of Glee’s pilot episode and now offer a “Glee” clinic, where school choral groups get to work directly with The Swingles on style, movement and performance practice. A larger part of The Swingles’ educational outreach is the London A Cappella Festival, now in its seventh year. The group has also appeared on the soundtracks of the TV show Sex and the City and numerous films. Recent collaborators include the singers Jamie Cullum and Labrinth. In its current iteration, the group can rock a souk in Dubai with a jazzed-up version of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies and stop hearts in a packed Moscow concert hall with a smoky beatboxed treatment of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. A busy touring schedule regularly takes them to North and South America, Europe and Asia.
The Swingles are sopranos Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson and Sara Brimer (the lone American), alto Clare Wheeler, tenors Oliver Griffiths and Christopher Jay, baritone and vocal percussionist Kevin Fox (from Toronto) and bass Edward Randell. They came to The Swingles from backgrounds in choral music, jazz, musical theater, opera and a cappella.