Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) arr. Bill DOBBINS
The Christmas Oratorio arranged for Big Band and 6 part male chorus [107:21]
The Kings Singers (David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright (counter-tenors); Paul Phoenix (tenor); Phillip Lawson and Christopher Gabbitas (baritones); Stephen Connolly (bass)); WDR Cologne Big Band/Bill Dobbins
rec. Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany. 20 November 2009
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD215 [55:22 + 51:59]
I really did want to like this album more. In principle it sounds like a good idea; take a leading choral group well versed in cross-over style as well as classical technique, add a stunning European big band, get a skilled arranger to prepare an edition of one of the great pieces of music and what could possibly go wrong? Well with my head I’m not sure why but with my heart I just know this really outstays its welcome by about one and half discs. I’m sure there will be many listeners who will respond much more positively to this concept than I do so I intend to keep this review briefer than usual.
My problem with this disc comes down to one central and basic issue: the fusion of jazz and classical/baroque – at least as presented here. I have no ideological problem with this concept – far from it which is why I requested the disc to review. Indeed several of my very favourite discs have addressed just such a similar concept. David Fanshawe’s famous African Sanctus and Paco Peña’s Misa Flamenca are just two which have tried to fuse music of widely divergent cultural heritages. Add to that the great album Officium with Jan Garbarek’s haunting saxophone overlaying the Hilliard Ensemble or probably closest of all to the album under consideration; the concept album Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration produced by the great Quincy Jones. This last disc might have crept in under the radar of classical collectors as it is more a rock/soul album. Different artists record their own individual ‘takes’ on famous parts of the Messiah all brought together by Quincy Jones. Simultaneously it is a celebration of black music. By definition some tracks work better than others but at its best it is superb. The key, absolutely central to the success of all the above albums is that the artists involved stick at what they do best. Fanshawe’s ethnic recordings are just that – with a Western pop track overlaid. Much of the Western element now sounds dated I know but at its best the fusion is terrific. Peña uses authentic flamenco performers in juxtaposition with a very good but very English-sounding professional choir; the Hilliard sing ‘simple’ Perotin or whatever and Garbarek improvises around it. For Quincy Jones Al Jarreau does an Al Jarreau track – it just happens to be to the lyric “Why do the Nations…”. On this version of the Christmas Oratorio the jazzers are at their best when left to jazz and the Kings Singers sound infinitely more comfortable when do their considerable best – singing straight.
I so wanted the opening chorus Jauchzet frohlocket! to knock my socks off - check the Empire Brass with organ on an EMI disc Bach Festival for Brass & Organ for how exciting a non-baroque arrangement of this can be – or stick to the original! Instead we get a very tame nominally jazzed up doo-by-doo-by-dooed rhythm lacking any of the electricity of the original. The six voices of the Kings Singers cannot compete with a full chorus for sheer vocal impact and don’t we realise that straight off the bat. Another big disappointment is the vocal arranging. If this was going to work it would need a Manhattan Transfer type close-harmony group with mixed male and female voices. Maybe it’s just me but counter-tenors swinging it(?) and being hip just sounds outright odd. The voicing of the vocal writing lacks those edgy bittersweet harmonies and, let’s face it, sexy voices that make the ManTran or the Swingles so persuasive. Don’t get me wrong – the Kings Singers sing with all their usual exemplary technical finesse and skill – but I find it misplaced. From a singing point of view the arias and recitatives work the best – particularly the latter because they are the sections that rely least on a jazz feel. Conversely those are the same passages where the WDR Big Band sound least comfortable. There were extended passages when I felt the players were very self-consciously playing ‘straight’. The recitatives work rather nicely because of the added colour of some gently arppegiated acoustic guitar chords but against that the flutes sound too breathy and the trombones too lumpy. But then in the bigger choruses the singers stay solidly unconvincing. One thing that really does not work in the arias is the rhythm section particularly the ride cymbal, somehow the whole tempo and feel of these arrangements leaves the poor player stuck with a part that stubbornly refuses to have any groove at all. By far the most successful sections for the band are when they are unleashed from their inhibiting accompanying role and allowed to take ‘proper’ solos – suddenly the playing comes alive. I should mention at this point that this is a live performance so movements and solos are acknowledged by the audience in traditional jazz aficionado style. I don’t have any problems with that personally but I know it might grate with some listeners on repeated listening. Perhaps worth mentioning at this stage too that this is not a complete version of the Christmas Oratorio. Arranger/Conductor Bill Dobbins has made extended selections from all six of the cantatas that comprise the original work. Original texts with an English translation are supplied and the liner contains extensive photos from the concert(s) as well as an explanatory essay by Dobbins. One other aspect that grated; given the circumstances and line-up the Kings Singers needed to be amplified. Again I have no issue with that except it has meant that too often I find the singing has a crooning quality to it that I really do not like. Apart from anything else this seems to deprive the music – original or as arranged – of so much of the fundamental joy and energy which drives it; this is Bach in comfy slacks and a sensible pair of shoes.
Projects like this take a huge amount of preparation and time and effort on all fronts so it gives me no pleasure at all to be so negative. Perhaps an odd chorus or two with a recitative in between would have tickled a collective fancy enough. By presenting over one hundred minutes of it the phrase ‘one trick pony’ leaps irrevocably to mind. This is that rare and curious kind of disc where each element is good in itself. There’s reasonable engineering too although the band are not given the kind of weight and attack that some discs produce. However the resultant sum is sadly lacking. I rather like a quote from Wynton Marsalis; “Sustained intensity equals ecstasy” – this disc lacks the former to induce the latter. An early Christmas turkey.