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Music Review: Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet – Hustlin’ For a Gig

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More than likely, the first comparison that will come to mind to any fan of jazz vocal groups when they hear the new album from the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet (UVJQ), Hustlin’ For a Gig, is the classic trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. And the comparison is certainly apt, after all Lambert, Hendricks and Ross is probably the group most often identified with vocalese, the musical genre UVJQ has chosen for its own explorations and the musical genre UVJQ is pushing to a whole new level. Decades in the future, if there is any justice, some critic is going to be writing that a new vocal group reminds him of UVJQ. They indeed are making the form their own.

UVJQ, led by alto Ginny Carr (who also wrote nine of the 10 songs on the new album) features tenor Robert McBride, soprano Holly Shocke,y and bass André Enceneat. They are remarkable vocalists who blend stylish harmonies with dynamic solos in a format that parallels that of the typical instrumental jazz quartet. They play their voices like instruments. As Carr tells Susan Stamberg in an August 4th interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition, “You have to think like an instrumentalist. You have to be an instrumentalist in your head and your voice.”

Add literate, witty lyrics that you can actually understand when you hear them sung, set them in a variety of musical forms, cool and hot, and you’ve got a recipe for success. The album begins with “He Was the Cat (A Tribute to Eddie Jefferson),” Carr’s homage to a singer who “put vocalese in the game,” but never quite got the recognition he deserved. This is followed by the album’s title song, a bluesy lament for the current state of jazz where performers are pounding the pavement looking for someplace to play especially if they won’t dumb down their music for popular consumption, if they’ve “got no melismatic smear, no candy for the ear.” Talk about sound echoing sense.

Carr’s lyrics are never ear candy. A song like “Gone Gone Gone” is a clear indication of her rejection of ephemeral popularity. And let’s face it lyrics like those in “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet,” clever as anything Cole Porter ever wrote, aren’t exactly likely to appeal to popular taste. It takes a lot of faith in your audience to rhyme “aurora borealis” with “royal palace” and make allusions to the Louvre, Vesuvius and Orsey. This is not to say that Carr short changes the emotions. Songs like “A Million Miles” and “I’ll Remember Why” are elegant melodies with matching lyrics. “Java Junkie” is an upbeat jive tune that echoes the “Java Jive” for the Starbucks generation. And “Caught You Spreadin’ Your Love All Over the Place” has the kind of double entendre typical of Chicago blues.

The band accompanying UVJQ on the album includes Chris Vadala (alto sax, clarinet), Leigh Pilzer (tenor and bass sax), Chris Walker (trumpet) and Jen Krupa (trombone). Alan Blackman plays piano and Fender Rhodes, Steve Herberman, guitar, Max Murray, bass, and Frank Russo handles drums. They tend to keep a low profile making sure to spotlight the vocals, but when given the opportunity they add some fine solo work.

Hustlin’ For a Gig is vocalese at its best. UVJQ has been around, albeit with some changes in personnel, for a couple of decades. They know what they want to do and they know how to do it. If you haven’t heard them before, listen to this album. It will make you a believer.

About Jack Goodstein