Stormy Weather

March 2002

Program Notes

 Straighten up and fly right

Nat King Cole/Irving Mills, arr. Morgan Ames

 Blue Moon

Rodgers/Hart, arr. Jacek Sykulski
 Steppin’ Out

Irving Berlin,arr. Deke Sharon

 Night and Day

Cole Porter, arr. Andrew Carter

 Waltz for Debby

Bill Evans, arr. Peder Karlsson

 Toccata and Fugue in D minor

J. S. Bach, arr. Howard Burke

 Eleanor Rigby

Lennon/McCartney, arr. J. Sykulski


Bob Berg, arr. Jennifer Shelton Barnes

 The Very Thought of You

Ray Noble, arr. Paris Rutherford

 God Only Knows

Brian Wilson/Tony Asher, arr. Tomas Bergquist

 Mack The Knife

Kurt Weill, arr. Ward Swingle


 Sir Duke

Stevie Wonder, arr. Anders Edenroth


George & Ira Gershwin, arr. Roderick Williams

 The Nearness of You

H. Carmichael/N. Washington, arr. Jennifer Shelton Barnes

 El Paisanito

Trad., arr. Ward Swingle

 There Will Never Be Another You

M. Gordon/H. Warren, arr. Anders Jalkeus/A. Edenroth

 Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

J. Kern/O. Harbach, arr. David Blackwell

 I’m With You

J. Mercer/B. Troup, arr. Margareta & Anders Jalkeus

Encore: You Go To My Head J. Fred Coots & Haven Gillespie, arr. George Valdez


Welcome to Stormy Weather, our evening of vocal jazz and a cappella pop. I’d like to extend a special welcome to you if this is your first Chicago a cappella concert. To our fans, welcome back!

This is the place in the program book where I always like to write an overview of each concert, which I follow with all the words and translations to our songs.  Tonight’s a little unusual, because almost all the words to this concert are in English, and the songs are probably familiar. I thought I’d take a little extra space, then, to talk about the musical journey that has prepared us for this concert.

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I like to joke that I’m a “recovering musicologist.”  Once I roll up my sleeves and dive into an area of repertoire, I drink it in like a sponge, absorb everything I can over several months, and emerge at the end of the journey with a concert of music all chosen. We’ve gone to some rather obscure territory in some other shows, so I figured that American jazz and pop would be simple. Not!

Programming this concert was much more difficult than I thought it would be. As it turns out, the phrase “a cappella vocal jazz” is a slight contradiction in terms, one I’ve had to grapple with. I also found it challenging to make clear in my own mind all the definitions of genre—in other words, what’s jazz and what’s pop.

Fortunately, I had some great help along the way.  My esteemed colleague Jerry Rubino and I spent several days last summer talking about the genre. He impressed upon me the essential distinctions between vocal jazz and a cappella pop. Based on that awareness, I was able to move forward with ordering dozens of pieces, listening and playing through them, and finally creating the final concert program. I want to acknowledge the tremendous contribution that Jerry has made to this musical enterprise, and to thank him for his expertise and generosity. He tipped me off to the vast catalog at UNC Jazz Press (that’s the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley), which has supplied us with most of the scores for this concert.

* * * * * * *

There are two things that make vocal jazz what it is.  One is a certain set of harmonies—they’re richer, and more complex in certain ways, than the typical chords you get in “classical” music. You can have a ninth-chord in a “straight” piece, and it still won’t be jazz; it’s a question of how much that sort of sound permeates a piece.  Jerry explained to me that once you get lots of chords with ninths, and they start to take over, you’re likely to be in jazz territory. Chords with elevenths and thirteenths pretty much clinch the deal.  The charts on this program clearly fill the bill; some are more complex than others. (The encore is one of the most skillful in this way, so I hope you’ll stick around.)

I’m going to be slightly technical in the next two paragraphs, so if music theory makes you “go south,” you can skip to the following section. The harmonic language of jazz includes substitute dominants, which my friend Peter Saltzman has outlined for me. Here’s an example: when you’re in the key of C major, the “official” dominant is the chord of G major, also known as the “V” or “five” chord. (We call it “V” because G is the fifth note of the C-major scale.) This chord functions as the “almost there” chord, the one that signals your ear that the next chord you’ll hear should be the final “home” chord in a phrase, or in a whole piece.

The “five” chord is so important that we call it the “dominant,” meaning that after the “home” chord it’s the most important sound in any key;  in fact, the relationship between dominant and tonic essentially determines what key you’re in at any given point. Jazz composers have become adept at substituting other chords to take the place of G major. As jazz developed, so did conventions for what chords will “function” in the place of V. A favorite of mine is the “flat II,” which in the key of C major is the D-flat major chord.  Both Waltz for Debby and There Will Never Be Another You end this way.

* * * * * * *

The second thing that characterizes vocal jazz is the performing style where a singer will improvise over a given harmonic progression—think of Ella Fitzgerald. We’ve included a good bit of this kind of singing tonight: in particular, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Kalimba, and Steppin’ Out all have instrumental-style solos. Because most of us are more classically trained and haven’t spent years doing improvised “scat” singing, we are graciously accepting the gifts of the world’s great arrangers, who have taken pains to actually write out the improvised lines.  We sometimes sing these “literally” and sometimes with more liberty. In other words, we’re mostly used to working from the printed page, and these printed pages give us just about everything we need!  As the listener, you’ll probably just groove on it. The basic feel of each piece will tell you intuitively when we’ve moved on from a “straight” statement of the material to a freer, looser, more improvised section.

As you probably know, the standard way to improvise is over a rhythm section. A jazz rhythm section can be as simple as a piano alone, or—in the more typical combo—piano, bass, and drums. The rhythm section keeps the beat going and outlines the harmonies, over which the soloist jams, scats, wails, and so on.

The hardest thing about this concert, for me, was finding pieces without any instruments that have both the jazz/blues harmonic language and a sense of improvised freedom. Having seen what’s out there in the world of printed sheet music, I’d say that only about five percent of the available vocal-jazz charts have no instruments whatsoever. As I browsed through the existing a cappella literature, I was glad to see several arrangers’ names tending to recur. I consulted with my informal panel of experts and got a good sense of whose charts were likely to be a nice fit with our way of singing.

So how do we do vocal jazz a cappella?  A few things are needed:

  • a texture thick enough to create ninth chords and more complex harmonies;

  • a rhythmic “groove” to lay down a framework for improvising;

  • generally, a percussive bass line.

If you do the math, you’ll see that you’ll generally need at least five voice parts to get you vocal jazz:  a melody, a bass, and three other parts to fill out the harmonies. 

If you’re really good at arranging, you can create a jazz chart with only four voices, leaving out the 3rd or 5th or 7th or 9th (and sometimes even the root) of the chord. A few of these charts are only for four voices: Night and Day, which only explodes into nine voices at the end; and Straighten Up and Fly Right, whose bass line is so angular, with so many “flat II” chords, that it’s firmly in the vocal-jazz genre.  On the other hand, you’ll hear a wonderfully thick six-voice texture in Jennifer Shelton’s glorious arrangement of The Nearness of You. During the middle section of that piece, when Kathleen takes the solo, she adds just enough extra notes to take the harmonies quite a bit further “out there,” in deft twists and turns. This thicker texture remains until Hoss’s tenor solo comes in, and then everything clears out in an elegant fashion.

A word is in order about the bass line in these tunes.  If you listen carefully to me, Matt, and Aaron, you’ll notice that we sing very few words, in comparison with the other singers. Rather, we spend a lot of time on things like “doom,” “chik,” “ba,” and the like.  This allows the low bass to function both as the upright bass and sometimes the high hat (cymbal).  The other voices get the percussion from time to time as well; part of the fun is hearing how these terrific arrangers share out the elements that create an a cappella rhythm section. There are whole workshops in the collegiate a cappella world now, where you can spend a day with an expert in vocal percussion, whose techniques can make you sound more like Take 6 or The Bobs, or even The Nylons.

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A cappella vocal jazz would be impossible without skillful arrangers. During the last decade, nobody has been more influential in putting an a cappella jazz repertory into print than The Real Group. It seems ironic that a Swedish quintet would revolutionize American-style vocal jazz, but they’ve done it. A product of the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm, Sweden, The Real Group have taken the vocal-jazz form to some of its highest a cappella expressions.

Two of The Real Group’s singers, Anders Edenroth and Anders Jalkeus, have created the bulk of their arrangements. We’re happy to sing five of those for you tonight. What astounds me is how young they were—in their early 20s—when most of these charts came out, and how deftly they handle the harmonies as well as the swing groove. If you imagine Mozart as a teenager, brilliant, a little brash, playful, and with complete control over the music, you know how I feel about The Real Group.

For decades, a pioneering figure in the field has been Ward Swingle, an American who created a rave a generation ago with his Parisian octet, the Swingle Singers. They took classical pieces by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Debussy—you name it—and gave them a cool “da ba da ba da” sound, often with instrumental rhythm section. In so doing, they created a sound-world of their own. They also did jazz-tinged arrangements of Christmas carols and folksongs. The Swingle catalog is represented tonight by El Paisanito, an Argentinean folk song, as well a stunning eight-part setting of Kurt Weill’s Mack The Knife. Many of you also know the legendary name of Gene Puerling, arranger for the Singers Unlimited and the Hi-Lo’s. We’ve done his settings on other concerts, so I thought I’d use this concert to showcase some lesser-known names.  Mr. Puerling’s influence is all over these charts, in any case!

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Jerry Rubino taught me that if you use some, but not all, of the jazz elements described above, you might get a cappella pop. The borders between genres are rather fuzzy, as you might imagine. With music in general, I tend to be drawn to those places where categories and genres blur; so does Jacek Sykulski, my Polish composer-arranger-conductor friend who lives and teaches in Poznan, a university town east of Berlin. Jacek’s settings of Eleanor Rigby and Blue Moon are both slightly cool, as is Roderick Williams’s setting of Gershwin’s classic Summertime.  Anders Edenroth has taken clever license with Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke (from the Songs in the Key of Life album—remember that one?), giving it a heavy-swing section halfway through, and only returning to the faster groove in the last few bars to remind us where we started.

As it turns out, people have a way of moving on, and The Real Group itself has made a rather large transition in style lately. That group, once known as the kings and queens of vocal jazz and swing, have moved decisively toward the world of pop, creating close-harmony tunes with a feel that is deceptively Top-40 in sound. Several of these are rather satirical, including a hilarious tune called “Substitute for Life,” which lampoons the silliness of American soap operas.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and I want to thank a few people, in addition to Jerry Rubino, for helping bring this concert to life.  Thanks go to Jennifer Shelton Barnes for sharing with me her ideas on repertoire in a phone call from Los Angeles, where she now lives. We are also indebted to the amazingly talented and versatile Bob Bowker, director of the Lakeside Singers (a new group on Chicago’s North Shore), for bringing his superb ears and command of style to coach us at one of our rehearsals; to the editors at Oxford University Press for compiling a superb jazz collection called In The Mood; and to Jacek Sykulski, who has freely shared his charts with me all the way from Poland. To these and those who carry on the traditions of a cappella pop and vocal jazz, we are in your debt. Finally, as usual, I am in debt to the other singers in this amazing ensemble, who bring terrific musicianship, flexibility, and a collaborative, playful attitude which makes this repertoire especially fun.  My hat goes off to you all.

Thanks for coming to hear us tonight.  We look forward to talking with you after the concert—stick around!

 —Jonathan Miller