NYJO Singers at the Barbican with Bobby McFerrin

Earlier this year NYJO’s two lead singers, Kwabena Adjepong and Emma Smith, through their association with the London Vocal Project – a choir composed of students and alumni from the various jazz courses at London’s Conservatoires – were able to take part in a concert at The Barbican, which was Bobby McFerrin’s British premiere of his latest album ‘VOCAbuLarieS’.

Leader of the LVP choir and famed educator and arranger Pete Churchill often provides advice to NYJO, so we were interested to find out what effect Kwabena’s and Emma’s involvement with the Bobby McFerrin project had had on them and, looking back, how they saw their contribution to this famous gospel jazz groove collective.

Q. How were you approached/did you get involved with the London Vocal Project?

Kwabena Adjepong: Up until the beginning of the Bobby McFerrin project I’d not been able to join the LVP, because I rehearsed with another choir on the same day. Thankfully this opportunity gave me enough reason to join, at least temporarily, and work on this great music. Pete Churchill called me to let me know that LVP would be doing the gig and I just knew I had to go for it.

Emma Smith: I was approached by Pete Churchill, my teacher at the Royal Academy, to sing with the LVP in December 2009. I started as a soprano but gladly became an alto for Bobby’s gig.

Q. Was this your first public performance with the LVP as a group?

KA. Yes it was my first performance with the LVP. The group ordinarily do groove jazz and gospel material for their gigs but I was thrown in at the deep end when I joined – most of Roger Treece’s (the man who composed, arranged and recorded the material on Bobby McFerrin’s album) music consisted of unfamiliar words and syllables. I felt like I was learning another language.

ES. In the short time I’ve been with the LVP I have performed at the 606 Club, Pizza Express Dean Street, Fairfield Halls in Croydon and taken part in Christmas concerts and school workshops.

Q. How long were you rehearsing before the Bobby McFerrin event?

KA. We rehearsed for about three months before the gig. The rehearsals were extended (between 31/2 to 4 hours long) and we had bass, tenor, alto and soprano sectionals outside of rehearsal time to concentrate on our specific sounds. It was intense.

ES. We calculated over 60 hours of rehearsal time before the gig and that’s not including extra sectionals. Roger Treece, the composer of all the music on the new album, came and spent three days rehearsing with us before the gig and it was an incredible experience to spend time with the man who actually wrote this music! The concept of ‘Circle Songs’ (the improvised choral music which Bobby did a touch of on the gig) was introduced by Roger and we spent a long time with him exploring the different texture tonalities and time feels that can be created through this technique.

Q. Did you have much interaction with Bobby before the concert?

KA. We saw Bobby at around 5:30pm on the day of the gig – such is the on-the-hoof nature of his style. I can’t say many of us talked to him but I was quite content with just being in his presence. He is just ridiculously good.

ES. Playing at The Barbican was amazing, everything was so professional (and they fed us!) Bobby McFerrin was great and is always an inspiration and it’s a shame that we did not get chance to rehearse the music any deeper than a sound check with him, although the time we spent with Roger was worth the months of rehearsal!

Q. Have you ever performed at the Barbican before? What gave it the extra buzz?

KA. I’ve never performed at the Barbican before. It’s special because when you watch performances at The Barbican, the Royal Festival Hall or other venues of repute you never imagine, even for a second, that you might end up performing on the stage. It leaves me speechless even to think about it. Also, the sound check adds another dimension to the whole experience – it’s scary! The soundmen have very honest comments about how you sound when you sing into the microphone: good or bad. It’s then that you realise you have to perform better than you have ever performed.

ES. The Bobby gig was the BEST musical experience of my life so far. The music was so well written by Roger Treece, it was a privilege to sing it.

Q. Has the experience made you think differently about your voice, your direction in music, how you perform as a vocalist?

KA. It has made me think completely about my voice. There are sounds on Bobby McFerrin’s album that I never realised I could or would ever have to make. I suppose you could say it’s added to my library of vocal sounds. It has taught me how to get extra musicality out of a phrase and how to get more meaning out of words. There were not many English words in the music but I think a lot of the music and the syllables we sung were chosen to signify certain emotions. It’s probably worth listening to ‘Messages’ or ‘Brief Eternity’ to understand that a bit better. In addition, singing material this difficult requires you to really memorise it – even if we were reading it on the gig we’d still have to have memorised all the most difficult lines. It’s really not ear-led stuff. I suppose doing this project has increased my ability to learn and improved my musical memory. Also when I consider that, in a way, singing is just muscle memory, it has also helped that as well. Also, as a bass in the choir, my ‘useable’ vocal range shifted downwards about a tone, which I as fairly sure wasn’t possible but you live and you learn. I might start calling myself a Bass. All these factors, plus Bobby’s amazing level of ability lead me to believe that I can really acquire a lot of skills as a singer – skills that I had not thought about acquiring before.

ES. The attention to detail on this music has changed my approach to singing; Roger talked a lot about finding the ‘place in your life’ from where you can create an authentic sound – it has made me think about how much music I just throw away that could be explored deeper.

Q. Who is next on your list of vocalists that you’d like to perform with?

KA. I just have no idea. I would love to work with Roger Treece, who is also an amazing singer as well as composer. To be frank I’d be interested in singing with any singer who has worked as hard as Bobby, Roger, Pete Churchill – people who have worked on their trade. They would have to be people who had skills and ideas to share, and then I’d have a great learning experience as well as an enjoyable time.

ES. I’d love for the LVP to get the chance to work with groups like Take 6 and the New York Voices – that would be great for developing our sound even further.

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Next year NYJO is planning to collaborate on certain projects with the LVP – more news on this exciting 2011 development nearer the time…

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