Swingle Singers back in town at time a cappella is stronger than ever
By Kyle Macmillan For Sun-Times Media November 11, 2013 4:28PM
Singers may have come and gone, but the Swingle Singers continue to perform the jazzy a cappella style that made them famous. | Mamun Humayun Photo
Nov. 13, two sets starting at 8 p.m.
FitzGerald’s, 6615 W. Roosevelt, Berwyn
(708) 788-2118; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com
The same and yet different, the famed Swingle Singers are still going strong as they celebrate their 50th anniversary this year with two new albums (one released and one yet to come) and a retrospective program highlighting both their past and present.
“We’re very lucky to have the history we have,” said Oliver Griffiths, 30, one of the group’s seven singers (three women, four men). “Particularly in America, the Swingle Singers’ name, the brand is still quite well-known and that immediately sets us into a category that allows us to do what we want to do.”
Given that big fan base here, the London-based a cappella vocal group returns to the United States three or four times a year, including a current tour that brings it to Chicago for a pair of concerts Nov. 13 at FitzGerald’s.
The Swingle Singers, alliteratively named after their founder, Ward Swingle, gained instant recognition in 1963 with their groundbreaking “Jazz Sebastien Bach,” an album of the baroque composer’s instrumental works sung in a jazzy vocalese or scat style.
The group has been performing virtually continuously for 50 years since, with each new singer stepping into the shoes of a previous member, forming a more or less unbroken chain back to the original 1960s roster.
“So, the traditions of the group have very much been handed down from singer to singer to singer,” Griffiths said, “but I guess with every new singer who joins, they bring with them their own taste, their own sensibility, their own style, and that obviously affects the music the group produces.”
While the Swingle Singers still perform some of the original jazzy arrangements that made them famous, they cover selections from modern and contemporary artists and perform more of their own songs — something that sets them apart from most other a cappella groups.
But even in their new songs with full lyrics, the group still tries as much as possible to incorporate the Swingle Singers’ trademark vocalese.
“The audience will definitely hear the original Swingle sound but see a very modernized version of that,” Griffiths said.
In keeping with its more contemporary vibe, the group also has adopted a more casual appearance onstage. For the men, that has meant no more of the tuxedos that the original Swingle Singers wore or even the suits that they donned quite recently.
“We see ourselves much more as a band now than a group or a choir,” Griffiths said, “and that is reflected in the way that we dress and the songs we are singing.”
The Swingle Singers has long been a fixture on college and university performing arts series, but they also perform regularly in jazz clubs, especially around London, so appearing at Fitzgerald’s will not be anything unusual.
“It’s an environment we really enjoy performing in,” Griffiths said, “because there is an intimacy involved. You’re right up (close) with your audience and you can see their faces, and the atmosphere tends to be a lot more relaxed. And so it suits our vibe and we really enjoy doing that kind of gig.”
The vocal and choral world has changed considerably in the last 50 years, with more small a cappella groups than ever before, such as the Anonymous Four, Cantus and Orlando Consort. But the Swingle Singers have managed to hold onto to their distinctive niche and continue to thrive.
“There has been a real explosion of this genre of music,” Griffiths said, “particularly here in America. We just feel the responsibility to try and stay on the front end of what is possible to do with the human voice.”