by Ian Mann
July 28, 2015
The three vocalists were all supremely accomplished in terms of technique but it was their eclecticism, wit and humour that delighted the audience and made this event such a success.
Juice Vocal Ensemble,“Golden Apples of the Sun”, All Saints Church, Hereford, 27/ 07/ 2015 (part of the Three Choirs Festival).
The Three Choirs Festival is a long established classical and choral festival that takes place annually and is centred around the Cathedrals of the “Three Counties”, Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester. Each city hosts the Festival in turn and it is the privilege of Hereford to be staging the 2015 Festival, incredibly the 300th anniversary of the event.
In Hereford most of the major classical and choral events take place in the Cathedral itself but other venues around the city and surrounding district are also deployed including several other churches. Among these is All Saints, one of the largest parish churches in the city of Hereford, which is staging a series of late night performances, all starting at 10.15 pm just after the evening’s main concert at the Cathedral has finished.
The All Saints programme is remarkably eclectic and reflects the way in which the Festival has diversified in recent years. Among this year’s late night offerings are several events that will appeal to jazz lovers, with folk fans being catered for too. Among the items that caught my eye were a duo performance by pianist Gwilym Simcock and guitarist Mike Walker of the Impossible Gentlemen group and a more mainstream offering from a quintet featuring saxophonist and flautist Amy Roberts and clarinettist Richard Exall. Most striking of all is the appearance of the Norwegian pianist and ECM recording artist Tord Gustavsen and his quartet on 31st July.
I shall be reviewing each of these events as they take place but before that comes comes a late addition to my itinerary, a performance by the all female vocal trio the Juice Vocal Ensemble subtitled “Golden Apples of the Sun”. My attention was drawn to this event by the presence in the trio of Kerry Andrew, whose singing I had previously heard in the context of Metamorphic, the jazz sextet led by pianist and composer Laura Cole. Andrew appears on both of Metamorphic’s albums, “The Rock Between” (2011) and “Coalescence” (2013) . Reviews of both recordings appear elsewhere on this site.
Andrew’s alto voice is joined in the Juice Vocal Ensemble by the sopranos of Sarah Dacey and Anna Snow. The three singers first met when all were studying at York University and they have been performing together as a trio for a number of years with three album releases to their credit. Their repertoire embraces a wide variety of sources ranging from traditional folk tunes to contemporary pop by way of Americana, contemporary classical composition, original songs by members of the trio and much, much more. Any music that can be arranged in an interesting, intriguing and entertaining manner for acapella voices seems to be grist to Juice’s collective creative mill - or should that be “blender”.
Besides the presence of Andrew I was also drawn to this performance after a witnessing an event at the 2014 Cheltenham Music Festival featuring the sublime voices of the Norwegian female vocal group Trio Mediaeval in conjunction with the trumpeter Arve Henriksen. That performance took place in the Chapel at Cheltenham College and the emphasis was very much on pure beauty in a programme consisting mainly of early liturgical music and traditional Norwegian folk song with Henriksen providing a tantalising element of jazz and improvisation. This was a collaboration clearly inspired by the influential alliance between saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the male vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble.
Tonight’s performance by Juice was very different. Despite also being staged in an ecclesiastical space the trio’s performance was much more worldly, sometimes dark, occasionally earthy and with a healthy dash of humour helping to enliven the proceedings. It was also entirely acoustic and acapella which I found surprising given that Andrew has experimented with electronic treatment of the voice in other contexts, including Metamorphic. Juice are also fond of appending their albums with a series of electronic mixes of their acapella material.
Tonight’s performance began with Andrew’s “Lullaby For The Witching Hour” sourced from the trio’s 2011 album “Songspin”, a piece that served to introduce their quirky signature style, a mix of wordless vocal melody lines sung in both harmony and counterpoint, vocal percussion effects derived from the world of beat-boxing, and Snow’s lead vocal singing Andrew’s unsettling words. An interesting start.
In this most co-operative and democratic of sisterhoods the role of lead vocalist is frequently passed around the group, often changing hands several times in the course of a single song.
Next we heard “Faint Praise” a setting of words by the poet Wendy Cope, a humorous dig by a woman at her male lover and a piece delivered with a mischievous relish by the ladies of the trio. One could sense the women in the audience nodding and smiling in recognition and the blokes all feeling slightly uncomfortable.
The trio like to commission contemporary composers and songwriters to write for them and requested a series of three minute acapella love songs, a number of which appear on the group’s latest album “Laid Bare : Love Songs” (2014).
Three songs from this work were performed in quick succession beginning with contemporary folk singer Jim Moray’s arrangement of the traditional song “The Unquiet Grave”. The three voices combined to create lustrous folk harmonies in this poignant ballad of loss, mourning and tradition.
Reggae singer Dawn Penn wrote “You Don’t Love Me” (No, No, No), its simple but desperate lyric forming the basis for an intricate Sarah Dacey arrangement featuring the interlocking voices of the trio.
“Heal You”, by the contemporary classical composer Anna Meredith was based around a simple but poignant four line lyric by Philip Ridley , a little like a haiku. Meredith has described the piece as “having a very simple chord progression where the text comes out of the texture as if emerging out of water”. The choral singing here reminded me of plain song and the eventual emergence of the lyric was almost imperceptible, just as Meredith had intended it. Meredith has a number of longer pieces scheduled for performance at the 2015 Proms.
The trio followed the three “Laid Bare” pieces with a stunning arrangement of the Guns N’ Roses song “Sweet Child Of Mine”. Dacey and Snow mimicked bird song on a startling intro that took the music into the kind of vocal territory more commonly associated with improvising vocalists such as Julie Tippetts and Maggie Nicols. Later they delivered folk style harmonies and layered choral voices behind Andrew’s rendition of the familiar melody and lyric, her alto voice bringing out the tender sentiments of the words, Axl was just an old softy really. Seriously though, this was a remarkable transformation, GN’R as you’ve never heard them before.
Following this it was time for a little audience participation as we were encouraged to provide a drone ( in C ) as the backdrop for the duo of Andrew and Dacey singing composer David Breslin’s song “Yellow Bellied”, a tune full of bewitching lunar imagery - “the old yellow moon has a face tonight”. The crowd did a terrific job and the whole performance was extremely effective. I think the people of Hereford deserve a round of applause for their contribution here.
From the “Laid Bare” repertoire came Andrew’s arrangement of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, performed fairly straight and with the combined voices bringing out the bleakness and yearning in Huddie’s lyrics. Doubtless this would have become an audience sing along too if it had been performed in certain parts of Bristol!
I can’t claim to have any familiarity with the original version of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” but I’m sure that Juice’s heavily syncopated version, with vocal gymnastics surely beyond even Carey’s reach, represented another radical transformation.
Dacey’s arrangement of the traditional folk ballad “Cruel Mother”, a song with an appropriate Yorkshire setting, re-introduced an air of solemnity before the trio signed off in humorous vein with three settings of Hilaire Belloc’s “Cautionary Tales”. For these the trio made use of props including a car horn for the tale of “Hildebrand - who was frightened by a passing motor, and was brought to reason”. Together with “Rebecca - who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably” and “George - who played with a dangerous toy and suffered a catastrophe of considerable dimensions” (prop, a balloon) we enjoyed three delightfully witty and humorous vignettes with the trio delivering Belloc’s words with superb timing and an impish sense of fun. The audience laughed out loud and absolutely loved it.
The trio had another sequence of tunes planned but time was running short at this late night event and instead they finished with the bluegrass song “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, effectively an encore following the rapturous reception given to the three Belloc pieces.
There wasn’t a lot of jazz, and not a lot of improvisation given how tightly the pieces in the Juice repertoire were arranged but this was still a highly enjoyable live event. The three vocalists were all supremely accomplished in terms of technique but it was their eclecticism, wit and humour that delighted the audience and made this event such a success. The wide reach of the material, the imaginative and inventive arrangements, the informative but amusing between songs patter and the engaging personalities of the performers made for an event that challenged musical boundaries but still remained accessible to a broad swathe of listeners, including what I assumed tonight to be a primarily classical audience. Juice are also acclaimed for their educational and outreach work and their easy rapport with tonight’s audience was a good reflection/extension of this.
Given the breadth of their repertoire I’d be more than happy to see Juice perform again and tonight’s show was hugely enjoyable as an event. I’m not sure that their purely acapella performances would work quite so well in a home listening environment but overall I was impressed. A good start to my Three Choirs Festival week.blog comments powered by Disqus