Valley Jazz Voices: A chorus with a wide-ranging repertoire

  • Valley Jazz Voices Submitetd photo

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Barely a minute into the percussive samba, “Little Hummingbird,” you begin to wonder, ‘How are these 30 singers doing this?’

The seeming impossibility of this kind of rapid-fire syncopated samba scat singing en masse, with layers of “da-da, dat dat, dat dat, da-da” makes you realize why there aren’t a flurry of vocal groups like Valley Jazz Voices, which will offer its first-ever Greenfield performance at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center on Sunday at 4 p.m

“Holy shmoly, this is hard!” tenor Rick Stone of Greenfield remembers thinking when he first began singing with the chorus five or six years ago, even though he’d sung with Amandla, Greenfield Harmony and Eventide.

“I was lost totally, faking my way through totally” as he and other tenors were asked to sing their parts on “Hit That Jive, Jack.”   

“I figured, ‘I’ve got to figure out some way to do this!’ I was really psyched,” he said.

That was back when Tony Lechner was directing the Valley Jazz Choir, along with Valley Jazz Voices, and realized he couldn’t do both. The rock chorus was pumping up more than 100 members, and when he let the jazz singers “Take the A Train,” they decided to “do the new low-down” on their own: “We Get Along Without You Very Well.”

“A group of us got together and decided we still wanted to do this,” recalls Gisele Litalien of Conway — the group became a core part of a grassroots jazzy thing of its own.

The group hired Ellen Cogen to launch Valley Jazz Voices, and after she moved on as musical director a couple of years later, hired Jeff Olmsted, a piano teacher, composer and arranger, who also leads The Wise Guys and On That Note a cappella groups, as well as directing the Haydenville Congregational Church choir.

Now in his second season, Olmsted will lead the 30-member chorus at Hawks & Reed — a show that will be opened by the Valley Jazz Divas and be followed by a jazzy open mic, all accompanied by Ken Forfia on piano, George Kaye on bass and Claire Arenius on drums.

The performance is funded in part by the Deerfield Cultural Council and Massachusetts Cultural Council.

For over a decade, the Divas have been performing jazz standards, blues and bebop together in and around the Pioneer Valley with lush harmonies and cool scatting.

Valley Jazz Voices will also return to First Night Northampton on New Year’s Eve with an 8 p.m. show at First Churches.

The chorus, which is unique to this area as a community-based, audition-free jazz vocal group, has a repertoire ranging from Duke Ellington classics and Glenn Miller standards to be-bop and Brazilian, as well as some pop tunes. Think “Old Devil Moon” and “Right as the Rain,”  and even Charlie Mingus’ funky “Nostalgia in Times Square.”

“It tends be more sophisticated harmonically than most of the pop, folk, spiritual kinds of things the a cappella groups concentrate on,” said Olmsted, who arranges some of the songs himself, like the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen collaboration, “Hit the Road to Dreamland.”

He also turns to arrangements that Lechner or Kaye have done.

“This is for people who want to sing all those interesting chords. There’s not a lot of opportunities to sing ‘Moonglow’ with a bunch of people and a band.”

The singers rehearse weekly at Northampton Senior Center. Whether it’s the Lamber Hendricks and Ross jive tune, “Everybody’s Boppin,” or “They Can’t Take That Away,” Olmsted’s hands dance energetically to every note, word and entrance as he directs from the piano before the trio arrives to help them “swing harder,” as he says.

Valley Jazz Voices brings in singers with a range of abilities, from professionals to some who don’t read music. Instead, it depends on learning their parts from recordings. Members come from Springfield northward to Brattleboro, Vt.

Members of the chorus, which also performs at retirement communities around the area, say they work hard to meet the idiosyncratic demands of a music that comes across as relaxed and easy-going, but proves to be demanding for a 30-voice ensemble that’s tight and precise, as well.

“In other groups, I was kind of used to faking it,” says Stone. “But, I take this seriously to learn the part so when comes to a performance, I’m actually on top of things — and it’s much more enjoyable. I can get into the delivery, and I can hear the other parts and respond.”

Lowell Laporte Jr., a first-time choral singer from Shelburne Falls who’s come to Valley Jazz Voices from years as a jazz, blues and Afro-Cuban drummer, said, “I wanted to challenge myself — and it’s all challenging. They change keys, and some of it’s a little high for me, so I sing falsetto. It’s a leap of faith and I’m trying it!”

Litalien, who has a past career as a trained jazz singer, said, “Its quite challenging, with people working really hard to get the music. You have to really prepare, since be-bop goes really fast, it’s a mouthful to sing, and some of the harmonies are not very obvious. You really have to work on them and find your way through the thick of some complex jazz voicings.”

As a member of the team that found and hired Olmsted, she said he has worked out very well.

“He’s a really good arranger,” she said. “I’ve been impressed, and now that he knows the group, he’s creating arrangements that are a really good mix — a little bit hard and interesting, but not so hard as to not sound good. It’s a good mix of pushing us, but knowing our limitations. He’s got all the traits and he’s able to pull all of that to get a good sound out of us.”
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