The King’s Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock are two globetrotting, Grammy Award-winning vocal groups. Both are known for their a cappella virtuosity, longevity, educational workshops, embrace of church music and collaborations with other performance and multimedia artists. And both are making Sacramento-area appearances this weekend.
Tonight, the King’s Singers will serenade audience members at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis with a cappella valentines from their “2013 Great American Songbook” release. The relentlessly congenial group pared a list of 3,000 tracks down to 17 by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Etta James.
“It was a tough decision,” said countertenor Tim Wayne-Wright by phone. “But with lots of brainstorming we knew the ones that were going to appeal instantly to the audience. There were some like ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady Is a Tramp’ that are such classic, classic tunes that we couldn’t miss them.”
The two-CD “2013 Great American Songbook” features one CD with vocal arrangements by Alexander L’Estrange and another of swing-orchestra performances with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra.
This all-male sextet took its name from King’s College of Our Lady and St. Nicholas in Cambridge, where the original 1968 British members were choral scholars. Nearly 30 vocalists have performed as a group member on their 150-plus recordings, but the group’s pioneering, trademark blend has remained the same: two countertenors, one tenor, two baritones and a bass.
The Singers’ sound is a marvel of near-clinical articulation, metronomic timing and ethereal intonation. Their massive catalog ranges from sacred to secular, and classical to contemporary. And the ensemble is just as comfortable with Renaissance polyphony as with Tin Pan Alley hits.
“We talk about the King’s Singers color of song,” said Wayne-Wright. “It’s a term we use. We have like a palette of colors that we use, sometimes harsh tones, sometimes very breathy, close harmony sounds, and that’s what keeps the audience interested through a two-hour show.”
This is the first Singers configuration to include a non-British member. Wayne-Wright, David Hurley, Paul Phoenix, Christopher Gabbitas and Jonathan Howard are joined by New Zealander Christopher Bruerton. “We’ve all gone through the whole cathedral tradition,” said Wayne-Wright, “and Christchurch, where Chris is from, is based upon Cambridge, ironically. I think that’s why when he speaks it’s very clearly a Kiwi voice but when he sings he sounds exactly the same as us.”
Saturday night, Sweet Honey in the Rock’s show at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley will focus on selections from its 23rd CD, “A Tribute – Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The material salutes Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and other ladies of song. And bassist Parker McAllister will accompany the quartet as it complements the performance with hand percussion and stories.
This four-part harmony, all-female African American group includes original members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, and Aisha Kahlil and Nitanju Bolade Casel. Shirley Childress has been Sweet Honey’s onstage American Sign Language interpreter since 1981.
Sweet Honey formed in 1973 as a side project of members of a Washington, D.C., theater company. Its name was derived from a song based on Psalm 81:16 (“… and with honey out of the rock should I have satisfied thee.”). The group expanded, contracted and recorded for 40 years without a Top 40 hit. This year’s “Forty and Fierce” tour is partially funded by crowd-sourcing through an Indiegogo campaign that raised nearly $20,000.
The group’s sound is earthy, soulful, sometimes sweet and sometimes gritty. And its members are just as formidable social and civil rights activists as they are torchbearers of blues, jazz, African, gospel, R&B and children’s music.
“Music gives people the voice to feel that they have a way to express what they are feeling and what they are needing,” Maillard said via phone. “As African Americans we used music to move us out of the misery of slavery and to give us a sense of hope and galvanize us.”
Also galvanizing has been the group’s ability to connect with widening audiences over its decades-long run.
“One of the things that the group has evolved into,” Maillard said, “is a group that speaks to the needs of different communities worldwide. I want people to really feel like they’re valued, and that their needs are heard, and some of the things we sing about address something that they might have gone through or they’ve been thinking about politically, socially, emotionally, love-wise …
“We give rhythm,” Maillard added. “We give music, melody, and message. We want people to feel like they really connect with Sweet Honey and we’ve done our best to connect with them.”