If you listen to just the CD of The Big Wig (ACT), Swiss singer/composer Andreas Schaerer’s six-movement jazz composition for voice and orchestra, you might not catch how remarkably skilled Schaerer is at beatboxing and instrumental mimicry. When he sings, this pioneering vocalist’s wide-ranging, protean melodies seem to emanate from his entire body, and his “human trumpet” vocalizations are easy to mistake for the brass instrument itself. That’s why the DVD gives listeners more information than does the audio recording. The rhythmic drive of the composition seems stronger when punctuated with the visual of Schaerer’s engrossing performance of this unusual piece.

The CD/DVD package documents the world premiere of The Big Wig at the Lucerne Festival in September 2016. The film shows Schaerer backed by more than 65 musicians: Hildegard Lernt Fliegen (Hildegard Learns to Fly), his regular horn-based jazz band of more than a decade, and the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy. It’s a rare thing for a singer to compose for a symphonic orchestra of any size, but a symphonic composition that includes a jazz sextet with a beatboxing vocalist is unheard of. Schaerer credits the work of avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez as the inspiration for the composition; Boulez co-founded the Lucerne Festival Academy in 2003, when Schaerer was a music student at Bern University of the Arts.

In the liner notes, Schaerer says that he wondered how he’d bring these “two colossuses”—his sextet and the orchestra—together into an inspiring whole. In the video you can see that it’s Schaerer’s virtuosic vocalizations that provide the glue. Take the fourth movement, “Wig Alert,” for instance. While each of the movements offers its share of galloping excitement, “Wig Alert” stands out for its subdued moments (soft marimba in the open and the close) that defy its driving intensity (beseeching horns in crescendo). In this movement Schaerer’s vocal percussion is so furiously changing that at times it sounds like a forest of wild animals has joined him on stage. At this point in the composition one realizes that in fact The Big Wig features three colossuses and not two.    

Like Schaerer, German-born singer Theo Bleckmann likes to explore the outer reaches of vocally produced sound. His explorations yield different discoveries, however. On Elegy, his latest release for ECM and his first as a leader, Bleckmann feels his way through the grief process, pondering the mystery of death with an almost ritualistic affect. His vocal approach to the compositions recalls early monastic chants: pure, clean colors; droplets of unexpected sound; sinuous melodic lines. In contrast with Schaerer, whose vocals encourage reflection on what is primal in the human, Bleckmann’s vocals encourage reflection on what is transcendent.  

Most of the tracks on Elegy, including the title cut, are wordless originals, usually featuring Bleckmann’s haunting vocalese. When he does sing lyrics, they often belie the sober mood of the music. Stephen Sondheim’s farcical opener “Comedy Tonight” as a mournful ballad. Verses that hint at solitariness while the music intones connection. Or the lyric “it’s silly to be sad” set against a melancholic melody. In this way Bleckmann reminds us that comedy and tragedy are never far removed from each other. To bring this message full circle, Bleckmann closes the CD with “Alate” (“having wings”), a short, hopeful instrumental that rises ebulliently toward the heavens. 

This month some of the most prominent vocalists of our day are turning out to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth. First, Thelonius Monk Competition finalist Charenée Wade will present her soulful interpretations of Ella tunes at the Apollo Music Café on April 7. On April 22, Patti Austin will offer selections from her 2002 Grammy-nominated album, For Ella (Playboy Jazz) in "Ella Then and Now: A Centennial Celebration of the First Lady of Song" at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. Jane Monheit will probably draw from her own Ella album, released last year, The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald (Emerald City Records), when she performs at Birdland April 25-29. And finally, Jazz at Lincoln Center kicks off five days of Ella tributes with its annual fundraising gala on April 26, the day after Ella's actual birthday. At the gala, a shimmering list of vocalists will salute the Queen of Song: Harry Connick, Jr. (host), Renée Fleming, Roberta Gambarini, Diana Krall, Alison Krauss, Marilyn Maye, Audra McDonald, Camille Thurman, Kenny Washington, and Cecile McLorin Salvant.

(Reprinted from the April 2017 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.)