The Swingles at Lakewood Cultural Center (March 16, 2019)

From the moment I walked into the auditorium, I could tell something was amiss. On the bare stage of the Lakewood Cultural Center sat 6 empty chairs and 6 microphone stands. But there are 7 Swingles! Was this to be a diabolical game of Musical Chairs (and Microphones)? Shortly thereafter, The Swingles walked on stage. There was Jon…Oliver…Midge…Kevin…Ed…Jo….but where was Federica? In a stage announcement, Edward Randell solved the mystery by explaining that the group’s high soprano (and the first Italian to sing in the group) Federica Basile, was still in London, negotiating with officials of the US Government over her delayed artist visa. My thoughts raced: the loss of a principal singer in a chamber group like The Swinglescould be a recipe for disaster, and this was happening on the very night when alto Imogen (Midge) Parry was making her concert debut with the group. Obviously, some editing was required to make arrangements for 7 voices sound right with only 6 people (and it should be noted that some of these charts were originally written for 8 voices!) Sure enough, every member of the group helped cover the missing high soprano notes, and there were no obvious gaps in the harmony. 

The Swingles (minus one): L-R: Jon Smith, Edward Randell, Kevin Fox, Imogen (Midge) Parry, Oliver Griffiths, Jo Goldsmith–Eteson.
Photo by Thomas Cunniffe.

Of course, the lessened forces meant that some Swingle favorites would not appear on the Lakewood program, including Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”de Falla’s “Naña”Ward Swingle’s “Country Dances” or Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” (re-titled “Swingle Ladies” for this group). However, there was no way of knowing whether those pieces were originally scheduled for the concert. What The Swingles did sing was performed at their usual exalted level. The first major song was a power ballad featuring Oliver Griffiths titled “Red Rain”. Griffith’s passionate tenor gave the program the energetic boost it needed. A lovely vocalese written by Kurt Elling to a Keith Jarrett piano solo was the basis of “Leaving Again”/“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”. Then, the four men then launched into their original drinking song, “Forgotten”. As is the case when men’s voices are correctly blended and perfectly in tune, the overtones rang out in spectacular fashion.

One of the great jazz credos is “when in doubt, improvise!” The Swingles took that advice to heart in Lakewood, offering up a delightful improvised blues between the group’s two basses, Edward Randell and Kevin Fox, as well as two spontaneously created pieces featuring the entire ensemble. All three pieces demonstrated the tremendous influence of Bobby McFerrin upon The Swingles. In addition to the vocal bass and percussion lines (which the Swingles adopted soon after McFerrin made his first recordings) Fox encouraged the audience to join the musical dialogue by singing back several riffs of varied difficulty. In one of the later improvisations, Fox gave the audience a unique part to sing, adding to the music sung on stage. Elsewhere in the program, The Swingles displayed how they have made creative use of digital looping. (Looping machines allow performers to record short repeating passages which can be controlled and manipulated through foot controls). While solo performers are the most dominant user of loop consoles, The Swingles have taken the practice a step further, linking four machines into their sound board, allowing them to create dense layers of sound during each piece. Every looped note was recorded live during the concert, and there were several moments where the audience could hear music even though the singer’s mouths weren’t moving.

The concert seemed to add energy as it went. The first half ended with a new Swingle standard, “Narnia”, with texts based on C.S. Lewis’ books and backgrounds filled with exotic sounds and vocal percussion. Folk songs from Bulgaria and Afghanstan—both featuring solo turns by American tenor Jon Smith—brightened the second half, but some of the best moments happened when the group returned to its origins in the music of J.S. Bach. Parry, who seemed very comfortable in her new role, sang the pristine lead on “Air on the G String” before Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson wowed the audience with her brilliant turn on “Badinerie”. Griffiths made special mention of the latter solo, marveling at how Goldsmith-Eteson could sing the piece so well when she and the rest of the group were severely jet-lagged. For that matter, every member of the group deserved similar praise!

The Swingles (in toto): Top to bottom: Jon
Smith, Oliver Griffiths, Federica Basile, Kevin Fox, Midge Parry, Jo Goldsmith-Eteson, Edward Randell.
Photo by Nedim Nazerali.

While on tour, The Swingles are selling a special MP3 download called “Snapshots, Volume 1”. At present, the download is not available online (although I heard conflicting reports about a general release following the tour). The album contains the soundtracks for the group’s most recent 11 YouTube videos.

While there is certainly merit to releasing these songs as audio-only recordings (for one thing, while listening on headphones, it’s easy to recognize the talents of these remarkable singers) I found myself going back to the original videos. These short films are very well-produced with excellent cinematography and superb editing. Watching the videos also allows viewers to witness the gradual change in the group through its recent personnel changes. The earliest video in the group shows the long-standing lineup of sopranos Jo Goldsmith-Eteson and Sara Brimer-Davey, alto Clare Wheeler, tenors Oliver Griffiths and Jon Smith, and basses Kevin Fox and Edward Randell. Wheeler appears only on “Hard Times Come Again No More”. She is replaced on most of the videos by Liz Swain (and by former member Lucy Bailey on another) but Swain is eventually replaced by Parry, who appears on only one track of this collection, the aforementioned “Naña”.  Davey is gone after a few tracks, with Basile taking her place. Both Davey and Basile have wonderful feature numbers on the set; Davey with her uproarious take on an aria from “Lucia di Lammermoor” (check out this playlist to see how this parody has evolved over the past few years) and Basile with a passionate cover of LP’s “Tokyo Sunrise” and the thrilling high notes from Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango”. The latter track (and another called “Fatma”) adds the wonderful Ayoub Sisters on violin and cello. Perhaps “Snapshots, Volume 1” would be better suited as a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, with perhaps a few more videos from the archives added to bring the disc up to concert length.

The Lakewood concert showed that even in less than ideal circumstances, The Swingles provide entertaining performances. I’ve seen The Swingles many times in the past  decade, and while this wasn’t my favorite of their concerts, it was still a wonderful experience. When The Swingles travel  to your area, make sure that you’re in the audience!

UPDATE: Federica Basile’s visa issues were solved two days after the Lakewood concert. She reunited with the group for their March 19 concert in Folsom, CA and will sing with the group for the remainder of the tour (and for many years to come, we hope!) Just as this review went to press, Kevin Fox announced on The Swingles’ website that he will leave the group at the end of Summer, 2019.

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