Photo by Robert Lewis
by Julie Waters, M.M. '91
To experience the New York Voices jazz quartet in concert is to encounter infectious energy, tight harmonies at breakneck tempos, and program notes that reveal equal talents in composing and arranging. In some of their proudest moments, members have shared the stage and studio with legends Paquito D'Rivera, Bobby McFerrin, and Nancy Wilson; toured with the Boston Pops; and jammed alongside the Ithaca College jazz ensemble. With two Grammy Awards, thriving performing and recording careers -- both as ensemble and as solo artists -- increasing commitments as music educators, and busy personal lives, these musicians still say one of their greatest accomplishments is the longevity of the ensemble.
The quartet with (clockwise from top left) Cuban performance and composing virtuoso and multiple-Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera,
with actor-singer-educator-songwriter Annie Ross;
and legendary cellist and multiple-Grammy winner Yo-Yo Ma.
For three of the four members -- Darmon Meader '84, Peter (Cummings) Eldridge '82, and Kim Nazarian '83 -- history threads back to IC at every turn of their careers. The New York Voices began truly, in name and spirit, during the summer of 1986 as part of an all-star vocal and instrumental ensemble formed by music professor Dave Riley to tour the European jazz festivals. Riley called on former members of his College vocal jazz ensemble, which included Caprice Fox '88, Fred Johnson '82, and Lori Bauer '84 (whom Meader later married), as well as Eldridge, Nazarian, and Meader, who also played saxophone. Six instrumentalists rounded out the ensemble, including trombonist Jay Ashby '85 (whom Nazarian later married), guitarist Martin Ashby '83, pianist John White, M.M. '83, bass player Peter Chwazik '86, drummer Brian McKenna '87 (filling in for Dane Richeson '84), and trumpeter Michael Levinsky '87.
The impressive response to the group's vocal, instrumental, and arranging talents at the major festivals in Montreux and North Sea became the impetus for a smaller group of the original ensemble members to pursue a professional career as the New York Voices. "At North Sea we were asked back out on stage after we had already filled the time allotted for amateur performers," recalls Riley. Back in the dressing room he said to the group, "That's not your mom and dad out there. These are people who have come to hear really good jazz. You've really got something here."
That "something," Riley believes, was an exceptional mix of timing, talent, and tenacity. All three describe themselves as serious students at IC, taking advantage of every performance opportunity. Another ingredient, which impressed the European audiences, was the composition and arranging skills of Eldridge and Meader. The ability to do their own fresh arrangements meant their material stood apart from published standards that other amateur groups were performing.
It was again through their connection with IC that the five-member New York Voices -- which still included Caprice Fox '88 as well as Sarah Krieger at that time -- made a solid leap to professional status. In 1988, while the young alumni were working to get demo tapes recorded and heard, gaining exposure at New York City clubs, and supporting themselves with wedding gigs and restaurant wait-staff work, Dave Riley invited them to appear in concert with the IC jazz ensembles at the Town Hall, a major New York venue. "We had five tunes really polished. Thank god we didn't need an encore," Meader jokes. The exposure was the boost they needed. In the audience was manager Mary Ann Topper of the Jazz Tree Agency, who later signed the group. The following year they signed a deal with GRP and recorded their first CD.
While recording for GRP, the Voices underwent personnel changes. In 1992 Sarah Krieger retired her chair and Lauren Kinhan, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, joined the group after auditioning with over 60 other vocalists. Caprice Fox left the group in early 1994, and New York Voices permanently became a quartet. After 13 years Kinhan is no longer the "new girl," and she's no longer the group's only non-IC alumnus -- she was given honorary alumna status when New York Voices performed at the College last November.
At that concert several of their most influential IC professors were in the audience: Art Ostrander, Carol McAmis, Pamela Gearhart, "proud papa" Dave Riley, Dana Wilson, and Steve Brown '64, M.S. '68, who sat in on guitar for a few numbers. "Ithaca is a vortex -- like a magnet that brings together people who are supposed to be together," says Nazarian, who majored in acting. "It's a place where opportunities are created, and if you're aware enough and fortunate enough and guided enough to take advantage of those opportunities, it shapes the rest of your life."
Eldridge first met Nazarian when he accompanied her during her audition for the vocal jazz ensemble. Riley remembers, "She sang 'Lullaby of Birdland' with great style, and after she left the room, Peter looked at me and said, 'Wow, we've got a winner here, Dave.' "
In addition to his studies in piano and voice, an introduction to poetry class taught by Jane Vogel opened up a whole new world to Eldridge as a songwriter. "I was so intrigued by her," says Eldridge. "She would read poems the way they were meant to be heard. It showed me what you could do with words."
Meader focused on instrumental studies at IC, taking saxophone with Steve Mauk, which didn't leave much time for singing. But in his senior year, he, too, auditioned for the vocal jazz ensemble and began to bridge the gap between vocal and instrumental music.
"For the kind of harmony that vocal jazz ensembles do, which eventually led to New York Voices, having a strong instrumental background is as important as having good vocal technique because the music comes from an instrumental perspective, in terms of the writing style," Meader explains. "It's very different from being a soloist."
Classmate and fellow jazz vocalist Graham Stewart '81, M.S. '01, admires the group's longevity, as well as its members' musicianship and passion for teaching. More than just a performing and recording group, "they really believe in taking the message and the mission of vocal jazz out there and getting people excited about it," says Stewart, who is IC's director of alumni relations. "They are a testament to the education you can receive at IC and epitomize the success that so many of our alumni experience. They are great ambassadors for the school."
After leaving IC Meader worked for three seasons in the house band at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. Eventually taking on directing, writing, and arranging duties, Meader gained invaluable real-world experience managing a group, both musically and politically, and today he handles day-to-day business for the Voices. Coincidentally, Eldridge also landed a gig at the hotel, which is where he first met Meader just before the European alumni tour.
As they enter their 17th year as the New York Voices, the struggle now is to maintain a pleasing balance between solo careers, ensemble work, and family. The group typically performs 75 concerts a year, which means about 120 days on the road. Tours are now limited to once or twice a year for a few weeks at a time since Nazarian and Kinhan have children and Eldridge is on the faculty at Manhattan School of Music. Bookings must be carefully coordinated with spouses and solo projects and often require finding child care in foreign lands.
It's a far cry from their first tour, a nine-week odyssey to promote their debut album that took them to Europe, to Japan, and across the United States, mostly in a borrowed van with seating for six. There were 10 of them traveling at the time.
"It was a whole new world for us," Meader remembers. "Sometimes we would be sleeping on the floor driving a hundred miles to the next gig. You do your best to have some cohesive touring plan but inevitably you have some crazy routing. To this day it's the craziest nine weeks of touring I've ever done." Meader recalls the fascination of seeing the world during that first tour -- playing at the Berlin Jazz Festival about 10 days before the wall came down -- and gigging with influential jazz greats like Mel Torme, whom they opened for in Amsterdam. "It was our first experience of meeting an icon -- someone we had looked up to for years -- and hanging out backstage," recalls Meader. "It was very memorable." Since then they've had the honor of appearing with a stellar list of jazz greats that include George Benson, Ray Brown, and the Count Basie Orchestra.
Other unforgettable performances include those during Kinhan and Nazarian's pregnancies. "I was in outrageous full bloom and would march right out on stage," Kinhan laughs. "The audience would gasp and wonder if there was a doctor in the house. I was just up there singing my songs. My daughter was moving so much in my stomach I was sure the audience could see it." Each woman was on stage the night before her baby was born, and both Nazarian's son Ian and Kinhan's daughter Ella have since toured with the group.
In addition to family, life outside the ensemble includes instrumental gigs, choral arranging, studio work -- such as performing as part of a larger chorus on the Stepford Wives movie soundtrack -- teaching, and conducting workshops. Meader maintains music books for the group, which include his new arrangements and original charts from songwriters Eldridge and Kinhan, and from which they draw material for concerts and recordings. When performance offers come up the group weighs them carefully. "Sometimes an opportunity just sounds like a great experience, sometimes it ties into a gig you're already doing and you can add onto a tour, and sometimes it just pays well," Meader explains.
"We each have our own individual styles and things we love about music," says Eldridge. "We're all songwriters and arrangers, and sometimes it's good to step outside of the group and try things on your own. It makes you stronger so when you come back into the group you have something new to offer."
Kinhan agrees. "Collectively what we make up in terms of the musical journey is always changing. Our interests are wide but we come together and figure out what's best for the four of us to do together," she says. "At the same time we keep trying to push ourselves and stretch. It's been a really cool ride. It does feel like we're still growing and getting better."
In the future that growth means incorporating more of their own compositions into the performances and choosing projects that continue bridging the gap between instrumental and vocal jazz. This year they're touring with the Boston Pops and continuing to work with Paquito D'Rivera. This desire to merge instrumental and vocal jazz inspired the Voices' participation in two recordings that garnered Grammy Awards -- a collaboration with the Count Basie Orchestra and a featured performance with D'Rivera, whom they first met in Ithaca.
In hindsight, says Nazarian, if you connect the dots . . . it all goes back to Ithaca.