Royal Bopsters ‘Royal Bopsters Project’ (Motéma) 4/5

royal-bopstersA 2010 meeting between singers Amy London and Holli Ross and Mark Murphy who had sadly fallen ill and was resident at an Actors Fund Home in New Jersey near to where the two aforementioned singers lived was the genesis for this vocalese project. This inspired firstly a concert in 2011 at the New School in New York, then the album came to fruition once altoist from the New York Voices, Darmon Meader, was invited to participate on the project. As such it reinforces the homage paid to Mark Murphy who departed in 2015. However, it is also a celebration of singers present and John Hendricks, Sheila Jordan, Annie Ross and Bob Dorough are among the other guest singers of the classic jazz era and this makes the album as a whole a real treat for fans of quality jazz singing. For the uninitiated, jazz vocalese is a sub-genre of the jazz vocal tradition and is reputed to have begun as early as 1929, though the first true pioneer of vocalese was surely Eddie Jefferson who added lyrics to the instrumental of James Moody’s, ‘I’m in the mood for love’. Subsequently. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross would become the premier vocalese group in the late 1950s and 1960s before Manhattan transfer re-ignited the tradition in the 1970s and scored some major pop hits including, most famously, a vocal version of Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’.

On this new project the quartet of singers comprising the Royal Bopsters are indeed something of an in-between of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross crossed with Manhattan Transfer at the latter’s jazzy best, and with some fine instrumental accompaniment coming into play. Obvious comparisons will naturally be made between the ‘On the Red Clay’ version 2015 with Mark Murphy on lead vocals and it’s illustrious vocal predecessor by the singer from 1975. That memorable rendition featured on a Muse album, ‘Mark Murphy Sings’, and became a favourite on the acid jazz scene of the 1980s with DJ Gilles Peterson and others. The new adaptation of the Freddie Hubbard 1970 instrumental original is actually an excellent performance in itself and arguably Murphy’s strongest on this project. Murphy guests equally on lead on a credible take of Horace Silver’s ‘Señor Blues’ where the vulnerability in the singer’s voice breathes new life into the song. Elsewhere Sheila Jordan takes on a second Horace Silver instrumental, the beautifully reposing ‘Peace’ that Andy Bey previously recorded in a near definitive version, while John Hendricks evokes his tenure with Lambert and Ross on a reading of ‘Music in the air’. Bob Dorough for his part contributes a new take on his own, ‘Nothing like you has ever been seen before’ and Dorough belongs to a select group of vocalists who recorded with Miles, Shirley Horn being another. As far as the original quartet of singers is concerned, a winner of a tune is the retitled Miles Davis composition, ‘Bebop lives (Boplicity)’, with new lyrics penned by the group while there is a fascinating reworking of a lesser known Kenny Dorham composition from the epic ‘Afro-Cuban’ album, originally titled ‘Basheer’s Dream’, but here renamed ‘Basheer, the snake and the mirror’ that displays the innovative nature of the vocalese writing tradition. A fine example of vocalese for newcomers and aficionados alike, then, and a tradition that one seldom hears these days and jazz is all the poorer for it.

Tim Stenhouse