January 3, 2014

Chanticleer's Someone New = Something Else

By Jason Victor Serinus

Someone NewSan Francisco’s famed Chanticleer male vocal ensemble has ventured far and wide in its 36-year history. Initially lauded for its performances of seldom-heard medieval and Renaissance music, it has since branched out into gospel, contemporary classical, Broadway, and other forms. Yet, perusing their entire discography of CDs and DVDs, it’s hard to find anything that presents Someone New’s high-spirited and surprisingly probing mix of classic rock, jazz, and indie pop.

Someone New was born of a desire to celebrate the basso facility of 23-year Chanticleer veteran Eric Alatorre. Given that the recording is available in both CD and download formats, I chose to audition high-resolution 24/96 WAV files, generously provided here by downloadsnow.net. The sound — engagingly clear and transparent, with a touch of sharpness on louder passages — does a fine job of conveying the exuberance “the boys” bring to contemporary repertoire.

You may not be familiar with Wally De Backer, a.k.a. Gotye’s 2011 album, Making Mirrors, but what Chanticleer and arranger Darmon Meader have done with his clap-your-hands-and-sing-for-joy tune, “I Feel Better,” is irresistible. Showcasing the ensemble’s high voices — sopranos Casey Breves and Kory Reid and alto Cortez Mitchell all have solos — the gospel-like riffs of this major feel-good song will leave you smiling. So will Ben Jones’ perfect solo on the band Keane’s “Hamburg Song,” if not for the lyrics themselves, then for the energy.

It’s clear that the ensemble’s latest music director, Jace Wittig, is doing something very right.

And so it goes throughout the disc. True, Jorge Calandrelli’s arrangement of bossa nova master Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” (No more blues) sounds about as authentic as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir attempting to sing “My Yiddishe Mama,” and the combination of Alatorre’s warm bass and Michael McGlynn’s limp arrangement of June Carter and Merle Kilgore’s “Ring of Fire” misses the profundity of Johnny Cash’s unforgettable recording. But when you hear the great energy that Chanticleer brings to Peter Eldridge’s arrangement of the band Elbow’s “Mirrorball,” or the haunting chromaticism and touching melancholy that they bring to the fore in Bill Finnegan’s arrangement of Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Yesterdays,” it’s clear that the ensemble’s latest music director, Jace Wittig, is doing something very right.

Their loving renditions of music popularized by bands you’ve never heard of, will delight and move you in ways both unexpected and supremely satisfying.

Among other highlights on the 13-selection disc are Alatorre’s funky basso intro to a special performance of ensemble member Brian Hinman’s arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Gone at Last,” Casey Breves’ great solo on Wittig’s arrangement of “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz, and Steve Hackman’s superbly artful arrangement of “‘Wait’ Fantasy.” The latter, which juxtaposes a tune from French band M83 with lyrics by Emily Dickinson, affirms that, as much as Chanticleer’s current membership may spend a lot of time on the road listening to pop music, their intellectual curiosity guarantees that their choice of arrangers, not to mention their loving renditions of music popularized by bands you’ve never heard of, will delight and move you in ways both unexpected and supremely satisfying. My one-word summary: yum!

Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.