The first measure of Royal Bopsters Project reminds me, tragically, how many of our listening habits and our reflexive judgments are based on crude cultural cues and the style game. From the downbeat of “Music in the Air,” with its smooth and tense clusters of jazz harmony and its insistent old-school swing, I can hear listeners everywhere muttering “vocal jazz” and dismissing it with an ease that only comes from knowing that you are in a safe majority. Yes, it is vocal jazz. And if jazz in general has been marginalized commercially lately (and even – absurdly – challenged on its historical and musicological importance as well), then vocal jazz has taken the brunt of it. In the popular mind, vocal jazz has come to represent the worst of the genre’s affectations and manners, the laughs of the lounge.
How horribly stupid of us. It you had listened another 30 seconds and opened your heart, oh Hypothetical Dismissive Listener, you would have been treated to a roundtable of deliriously virtuosic and musical scat solos, one by each of the four Royal Bopsters: Amy London, Holli Ross, Darmon Meador and Dylan Pramuk. Guitar-players are always talking about how they learned to transcend the fixed pitch and limited dynamics and tonal range of their instrument by emulating sax players, and sax players should always be talking how they emulate liberated singers such as these. The timbral play on these solos, the fleetness and acuity of phrasing and the full playload of harmonic and melodic sophistication in effect: The Royal Bopsters are just amazing, drop-dead amazing.
Track two, “Red Clay,” begins with a glorious, cloudy fugue of sorts before the deeply funky groove hits, then a cool song, then some more absolutely staggering solos. The Royal Bopsters are exceptional ensemble singers as well as soloists, especially in evidence in the uptempo “Basheer, the Snake and the Mirror” and in the elegiac jazz chorale “There’s a Place,” in which the ensemble backs a special guest: the legendary Sheila Jordan.
This is no Manhattan Transfer. This no Bobby McFerrin. This is a very, very different animal altogether: cutthroat jazz, executed at the highest possible level with the liberated joy exclusive to singers and players who can go anywhere they want with it.
Jazzstock presents the Royal Bopsters with special guest Bob Dorough on Saturday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Woodstock Community Center, located at 56 Rock City Road. Tickets cost $35 general admission, $45 for seating in the first three rows. For more information, visit www.jazzstock.com.