The Swingle Singers Boxed Set – “A Cappella Amadeus;” “Bach Hits Back;” “1812;” “Around the World” – The Swingle Singers 4-CD Set, (1: 52:23; 2: 53:25; 3: 50:24; 4: 61:51) – EMI/Virgin Classics 966956 2 3 *****:
I’ve admitted previously that I’m not greatly enamored of vocal music, preferring instrumental, but I do like vocalese and scat singing. I think it frees music from the constraints of words and language and takes it into exciting realms not possible otherwise. (I also like animated films which use only sound effects and/or nonsense words so they don’t need subtitles to appeal to viewers worldwide.) Well, I hadn’t really thought of it before, but the Swingle Singers, who were founded in 1962, illustrate my attitude beautifully. This collection of four of their albums, rounded out with some additional tracks that didn’t fit on the original LPs, is a tribute to the truly innovative approach of the group.
The original Swingles was a French group, but led by an American who lived in Paris, Ward Swingle. He had been part of the Double Six of Paris; they overdubbed their six voices to reproduce the 12 voices of a typical jazz band – hence their name. The Swingle Singers are were made up of eight singers: two each sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. Swingle’s original arrangements had the group spanning the world of scat singing in jazz with various sounds, applied at first to hit themes of Mozart and Bach. Their style also bridged the Atlantic with a combination of European and American genres. Another of their innovations was the imitation of various instruments using only their vocal sounds, which reaches phenomenal levels in such numbers as their arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
The first album was devoted to Mozart, with short vocal versions of many of his familiar themes such as tunes from Don Giovanni, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, Cosi fan tute, the Requiem, and the Alla turca movement of his piano sonata. For their second The Swingles did a Bach tribute album, filled with their wonderful versions of themes from the Brandenburgs, the WTC, some organ fugues, cantata melodies, and so on. Bach always seems to fit so well with any sort of alternative transcription, and that’s certainly the case here.
Things get a bit more experimental in the third album, “1812.” Before ending in that eight-minute spectacular, the CD opens with their version of the William Tell Overture. Then we have three Debussy songs, followed by a bunch of Beatles’ tunes – completely delightful – especially Fool on the Hill. Their version of Gershwin’s Summertime is glorious – it could stand next to the finest jazz vocalist’s version. For their fourth LP the Swingles went to more songs with words, but half of them are in foreign languages. This was now really the Swingles II, based in London. I’m not a big fan of folk music either, but found this almost as enjoyable as the other three discs.
– John Sunier