Weekender

‘Great American Songbook’s’ new tone: King’s Singers’ a cappella renditions pay homage to American music standards

A performance by The King’s Singers features a cappella renditions of popular jazz, Broadway and pop standards. The group will perform selections from its 2013 release “Great American Songbook.”
A performance by The King’s Singers features a cappella renditions of popular jazz, Broadway and pop standards. The group will perform selections from its 2013 release “Great American Songbook.” Photo provided

When The King’s Singers first began in 1968, an illustrious period of songwriting in history was coming to a close in America. With the album “Great American Songbook,” the group pays homage to the intersection of popular, jazz and Broadway music that dominated the airwaves from the 1920s to the 1960s, an era that boasted the greatest singers and songwriters of the 20th century.

On Feb. 17, The King’s Singers a cappella ensemble will visit Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium to perform “Great American Songbook” classics.

The two-time Grammy Award-winning vocalists — currently represented by countertenors David Hurley and Timothy Wayne-Wright; tenor Julian Gregory; baritones Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas; and bass Jonathan Howard — long have been known for their flawless blend, intonation, articulation and timeless classics performed with class and British wit.

The King’s Singers have included a huge variety of musical styles in their repertoire, including Renaissance music, sacred and secular, from many different countries. The group has also included Romantic era songs, folk, jazz, contemporary music, pop arrangements and other works from the 20th and 21st centuries.

“There are subtle ways in which we differ the way we sing these pieces,” said Hurley, the senior member of The King’s Singers. “We tend to sing a bit more classically for the heavier repertoire, and soften the sound for the jazz and pop. We are always looking for new music, so the criteria is always that we can add something to the music.”

“Great American Songbook,” the 2013 album featuring show songs and jazz standards, gave the group their choice of numbers. In the end, the members chose their favorite tunes by the likes of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Cy Coleman and more.

“My favorites are those by Cole Porter — great tunes and witty texts that capture an era,” Hurley said. “Other songs I love from the ‘Great American Songbook’ playlist include ‘At Last,’ made famous in the version by Etta James, and Jack Lawrence’s English version of Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ in ‘Beyond the Sea.’ We also include a fantastic version of Gershwin’s last composition, his beautiful song ‘Love Is Here to Stay.’ ”

Recordings are a great way to keep a permanent record of a musical artist’s life, but they are like a still photo when compared to the real life of a live performance.

“The ego of an artist loves the response,” Hurley said. “For me, the joy is in singing to a live audience. There’s more spontaneity, more danger occasionally, and more buzz when you feel the audience has enjoyed it.”

The King’s Singers has a long and proud history, and the current lineup sees itself as the present day’s custodian of something very special.

“Whether you’ve been in the group a long time, like myself, or whether you’ve recently joined, you consider yourself to be very lucky to be traveling the world singing in so many amazing places,” Hurley said. “For me, my legacy is to see the group flourish in the coming years, and in the future I’d like occasionally to be able to sit in the audience and hear a new line-up carrying on the tradition. Then I’ll know we’ve done OK ourselves.”

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