Written in 2003 and premiered by the Hertfordshire Chorus, with the composer at the piano, and with his wife, Bethany Halliday, as soloist, Will Todd’s Mass in Blue has taken the choral world by storm. Although there have been a number of experiments in liturgical jazz before, by composers including Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, this particular setting has captured the imaginations of choirs worldwide with its driving grooves and exuberant choral writing. Read more
The piece has enabled Will Todd to combine his twin backgrounds of jazz and choral music into a work that stays true to its jazz roots, particularly the use of 12-bar blues, with choral writing that can stretch a choir to its limits. Improvisation is, of course, a crucial element of jazz, and the genius of this piece, for me, lies in the way that the composer builds up layers of melody and harmony in such a way that it feels as if all the performers are improvising their own lines, even within the choir, yet still coming together in one tightly-organised whole. The piece exists in versions for full jazz band, and for jazz trio with string orchestra, but is presented here, distilled to its very essence, in its version for jazz trio.
After an instrumental introduction from the trio that launches the listener head-first into the realm of jazz, the Kyrie builds slowly, taking a simple melody and building layers of texture with every repetition—introducing first the upper voices, then the lower, then all in varying degrees of harmony and countermelody, passing the melody to the band, and finally on to the soloist, who seizes that melody and creates her own extemporisations over the top—in much the same way as a jazz ensemble would introduce the players one by one in a performance. The Gloria is a high-energy whirlwind of praise that showcases the choir in their own right. The soloist returns for the Credo in a joyously swinging triple-time, before dropping into a hush for the moments of birth and crucifixion. The band drives forward into a fast-paced swing for “et resurrexit” which takes us effortlessly back to the swing of the opening section for the final affirmations.
The Sanctus is a moment of true peace, a jazz ballad for the choir and the trio that alternately soars and swings, and then does both together. The bass solo at the start of the Benedictus begins a build-up in which each voice part within the choir contributes their own 8-bar melody, building up a rich tapestry of sound that shifts between laid-back swing and driving funk. Finally, the Agnus Dei brings us back to the music of the opening of the piece, but soft and contemplative this time. After a free, almost improvisatory verse from the soloist, the choir returns with another steady build, in which the various voice parts sit gently on backing vocals or step forward with their own improvisations as the movement builds towards its climax at the words “miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us”). It might well make perfect sense to end the piece quietly here (as many settings of the text do) but, in a master stroke, the final minutes of the piece are given over to a reprise of the Credo music, so that the emphasis shifts from sin and forgiveness, to a joyous affirmation of faith, deliberately closing on the word “credo” (“I believe”).
The challenge of turning a highly skilled classical choir into an authentic jazz choir with a close-microphone technique continues into the remainder of the programme, which features a selection of classic vocal jazz arrangements of some of the great jazz standards, many of which were written for the world’s leading vocal groups, including The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers and New York Voices. All of these arrangements were originally written to have one voice on each part, but take on an identity of their own when performed by a whole choir. Many of the vocal techniques on display in these arrangements are there in Mass in Blue, but these arrangements go further to stretch the vocal capabilities of any choir brave enough to tackle them!
Ward Swingle’s arrangement of Love walked in is unusual among his output in that it was written not for The Swingle Singers (which he founded and directed for 22 years), but for the choir of South Haven High School, Michigan. The arrangement has much in common with one of his biggest hits, All the things you are—an opening verse that presents the tune in simple chordal fashion and gives way to a swinging scat section in the middle—but this little gem is receiving its premiere recording here, and deserves to be more widely heard. The scat section takes the form of a gently swinging jazz waltz, the simple, understated nature of the arrangement belying the sheer dexterity needed by the singers in the instrumental imitation that is such a strong feature of Ward’s arrangements.
This is followed by Darmon Meader’s arrangement of On a clear day, a classic song in its own right, taken from the Lerner/Lane musical of the same name, which was written for New York Voices (in which Darmon still sings Bass). This arrangement has become a classic in the repertoire of jazz choirs around the world since its debut on the New York Voices album A Day Like This, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to showcase it here with Nonsuch Singers, with a wonderful scat solo from Joanna Forbes L’Estrange.
Then follows another great Gershwin song, Someone to watch over me, arranged by the Musical Director of Voices of Liberty and Voctave, Jamey Ray. Thick, luscious chords are the order of the day here, with the solo set in a key low enough that allows Joanna to use the full colour and range of her voice in a completely different way to Mass in Blue. Although originally written and recorded by a smaller a cappella group, this arrangement really seems to come into its own sung by a choir, let loose on the richly-scored chords that are such a delight to sing.
Alexander L’Estrange’s arrangement of the swing classic, Beyond the Sea, which was originally created for The King’s Singers, on their Great American Songbook album, is augmented here with added jazz trio. Once again, the individual singers get to showcase their own solo capabilities, crooning the melody and scatting a solo in homage to the guitarist George Benson, while the rest of the choir weaves a backing texture that incorporates big band swing, Mantovani strings, and even a brief hornpipe.
Next up is a Count Basie classic, Li’l Darlin’, from his 1958 album The Atomic Mr Basie, in a vocal transcription by Ward Swingle. The laid-back swing provides the perfect showcase for a choir to indulge in the warm glow of the thickly-scored harmonies, with their deep and rich bass lines, with a gentle vocalisation of the original trumpet solo. Both this and the following arrangement were written for The Swingle Singers’ 1979 album, Skyliner, which featured vocalisations of some of the great big band arrangements. The unique feature of the arrangements on this album, of which Artie Shaw’s Back Bay Shuffle is a brilliant example, is that the only change that was made to the existing big band arrangements was to add words, written by John Hendricks. The singers vocalise the exact big band scores, with groups of singers taking on 5 sax parts, 4 trumpet parts and 4 trombone parts, with extra solo lines over the top. The result is a rich tapestry of sound that recreates exactly the thrill of a big band in full flight.
Finally, Michel Legrand’s touching and expressive song, How do you keep the music playing?, brings the album to a close, in a beautiful arrangement written by Alexander L’Estrange for Joanna’s final concert with The Swingle Singers in 2004, and released as the lead track on the L’Estranges in the Night debut album, New things to say. Michel Legrand passed away during the production of this album, and we would like to dedicate this track to his memory.