Vocal Jazz Quartet The Royal Bopsters Shine and Swing with Special Guests on “Party of Four” (Album Review)

One of many highlights from the 2019 Newport Jazz Festival was the opening morning performance from the vocal jazz quartet, The Royal Bopsters, which also featured Sheila Jordan who now at age 91, with the passing of Annie Ross this July, has become the reigning Queen Matriarch of Vocal Bop and takes a turn here on one of the dozen tunes on the group’s sophomore release, Party of Four. Rarely does one hear 4-part harmony executed so brilliantly, especially considered that bebop is not the easiest style to sing.  To be fair, it’s both vocals and vocalese (wordless) delivered by Amy London (soprano), Dylan Pramuk (bass), Pete McGuinness (tenor), and the late Holli Ross (alto), to whom the album is dedicated.. 

In addition to Jordan, who sings lead on “Lucky to Be Me,” the quartet is joined by NEA Jazz Master Bob Dorough, whose humorous recording of his classic “Baby, You Should Know It” became one of his final recordings when he sadly passed in 2018. GRAMMY®-winning bassist and jazz personality Christian McBride also guests on bass for two strong tracks. The album’s release coincides with the weekend of Holli Ross’s 64th birthday on November 16th and Sheila Jordan’s birthday November 18. Two singles have been released before the album: “But Not for Me”, and “Cuando Te Vea” with lyrics and lead vocals by Holli Ross. The Bopsters’ band, featuring Steve Schmidt (piano), Cameron Brown (bass), Steve Williams (drums) and Steven Kroon (percussion), are the ‘engine’ that helps power their hard-driving sound. 

The Royal Bopsters have always kept highly respected company. Their 2015 debut, The Royal Bopsters Project, featured featuring five of history’s most celebrated vocal bop innovators and monarchs: Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Sheila Jordan, Bob Dorough and Annie Ross.  They’ve been hailed by many leading publications with phrases such as “expert practitioners of vocalese.” They celebrated their first release with a star-studded, sold-out week-long residency at New York’s iconic Birdland with guests Annie Ross, John Hendricks, and Bob Dorough. 

This is the first recording for McGuinness, a three-time GRAMMY®-nominated arranger, who stepped into the tenor chair soon after the Birdland show, replacing Darmon Meader, of the New York Voices, who sang tenor on the first album. This recording with its title penned by Holli Ross – began to take shape as McGuinness and Pramuk brought additional arrangements to the group in 2016.  NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan, who began her career singing with Charlie Parker, has commented “The Bopsters are my favorite vocal group.” The love is mutual, and as stated, The Bopsters include Sheila as a guest in their live shows wherever possible. Dorough, who is most famous for writing “Schoolhouse Rock,” also guested frequently until his sudden death in 2018. 

We are indebted to Michael Bourne’s liner notes to present the vast jazz history contained in these selections, beginning with a rousing rendition of the Gershwin classic “But Not for Me,” where the voices riff around each other, masterfully emulating the sound of a big band via Pete McGuinness’s arrangement. It owes to the classic Chet Baker recording, and, as such, the group presents a soli section; Chet’s wonderful scat solo expertly harmonized for the vocal ensemble.  Holli’s extra lyrics question why the song’s loveless melancholic wastes so much time on a fruitless endeavor like love. The album continues with a medley arranged by Dylan Pramuk.  “On A Misty Night/The Gipsy,”co-written by London and Christian McBride, is inspired by two classic recordings: the 1972 Tadd Dameron big band arrangement on the album The Magic Touch, and a vocalese written by Georgie Fame to a solo of Chet Baker.  McBride begins the track with a call-and-response with the ensemble before embarking on a beautiful solo, while the Bopsters add rhythmic hits.

“How I Love You (Let Me Count the Reasons),” another Dylan Pramuk arrangement, begins with a solo voice accompanied by Cameron Brown on bass, with periodic harmonic accents coming from the remainder of the group.  This tender ballad is based on a Dexter Gordon improvisation over the William Best and Ivory Watson song “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.”  This heartfelt vocalese was initially written by Pramuk for the occasion of his wedding. “Lucky to be Me” features Sheila Jordan. After the Bopsters’ rubato verse, the renowned duo of Sheila Jordan and bassist Cameron Brown launch the melody and Sheila scats a chorus, magically.  Dylan integrates a half-chorus of a Bill Evans solo, adding lyrics before a laughing Sheila returns to this song from On the Town.

“Why’d You Do Me the Way You Did?” a Steve Schmidt composition with lyrics by Mark Murphy and additional lyrics by Amy London, tells the tale of a love affair gone wrong. The album continues with Pramuk’s evocative arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Day Dream.”  This rendition features no lead vocalist but four-part harmony throughout—a capella. The group then takes on the Tito Puente classic “Cuando Te Vea (When I See You) “ with lyrics translated by Holli Ross, a deeply grooving tumbao from bassist Christian McBride, an improvised “mouth trombone” solo from Pete (who incidentally played the real thing professionally for many years) and an overall fiery arrangement from Pramuk. “Baby You Should Know It” features the late Bob Dorough who reaches back with his signature humor to a selection from his 1966 album Just About Everything.

“Our Spring Song “ is an original, composed and arranged by McGuinness with lyrics by London, as the group displays their harmonic prowess in a group-scat soli based on a sax section of Pete’s big band arrangement. “Rusty Dusty Blues” gives the album a healthy dose of sultry blues.  The version here features a bawdy vocalese written by Jon Hendricks, based on the improvisation of Count Basie’s band.  Arranged by Pete McGuinness, “Infant Eyes” offers an arresting performance of one of Wayne Shorter’s most beautiful compositions in a decidedly fresh context.  Steve Schmidt is featured on piano. McGuinness takes the closing honors on “My Shining Hour,” displaying his flair for melody in a scat solo over this Johnny Mercer classic which originated in a 1943 Fred Astaire musical The Sky’s the Limit.

Each Royal Bopster is a renowned jazz educator, and collectively they instruct at the entire gamut of excellent jazz programs in the NYC area: The New School (London was a founder of the program), NYU, William Paterson, Manhattan School of Music, Montclair State, City College, Hofstra and Jazz House Kids (where London & Pramuk teach and co-created their Vocal Academy – thus the connection to Christian McBride as well). The group’s vast collective knowledge of the history and technique of the artform of vocal jazz shines through on every note. The Royal Bopsters carry on the honorable tradition of such vocal groups as Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. 


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