Will Todd: Mass In Blue
£5.99 – £9.99
About this release
“It’s wonderful to have a new recording of Mass in Blue available, this time in the piano trio version rather than the original full band scoring. Nonsuch Singers and conductor Tom Bullard have done a fine job of giving a new spin on the piece, with sparkling contributions from soloist Joanna Forbes L’Estrange and pianist John Turville. The choral timbres are vibrant and engaging and the energy of Mass in Blue shines through in spades.”
— Will Todd
Commissioned Programme Note
Written in 2003 and premiered by the Hertfordshire Chorus, with the composer at the piano, and with his wife, Bethany Halliday, as soloist, Will Todd’s Mass in Blue has taken the choral world by storm. Although there have been a number of experiments in liturgical jazz before, by composers including Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, this particular setting has captured the imaginations of choirs worldwide with its driving grooves and exuberant choral writing. The piece has enabled Will Todd to combine his twin backgrounds of jazz and choral music into a work that stays true to its jazz roots, particularly the use of 12-bar blues, with choral writing that can stretch a choir to its limits. Improvisation is, of course, a crucial element of jazz, and the genius of this piece, for me, lies in the way that the composer builds up layers of melody and harmony in such a way that it feels as if all the performers are improvising their own lines, even within the choir, yet still coming together in one tightly-organised whole. The piece exists in versions for full jazz band, and for jazz trio with string orchestra, but is presented here, distilled to its very essence, in its version for jazz trio. Read more
After an instrumental introduction from the trio that launches the listener head-first into the realm of jazz, the Kyrie builds slowly, taking a simple melody and building layers of texture with every repetition—introducing first the upper voices, then the lower, then all in varying degrees of harmony and countermelody, passing the melody to the band, and finally on to the soloist, who seizes that melody and creates her own extemporisations over the top—in much the same way as a jazz ensemble would introduce the players one by one in a performance. The Gloria is a high-energy whirlwind of praise that showcases the choir in their own right. The soloist returns for the Credo in a joyously swinging triple-time, before dropping into a hush for the moments of birth and crucifixion. The band drives forward into a fast-paced swing for “et resurrexit” which takes us effortlessly back to the swing of the opening section for the final affirmations.
The Sanctus is a moment of true peace, a jazz ballad for the choir and the trio that alternately soars and swings, and then does both together. The bass solo at the start of the Benedictus begins a build-up in which each voice part within the choir contributes their own 8-bar melody, building up a rich tapestry of sound that shifts between laid-back swing and driving funk. Finally, the Agnus Dei brings us back to the music of the opening of the piece, but soft and contemplative this time. After a free, almost improvisatory verse from the soloist, the choir returns with another steady build, in which the various voice parts sit gently on backing vocals or step forward with their own improvisations as the movement builds towards its climax at the words “miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us”). It might well make perfect sense to end the piece quietly here (as many settings of the text do) but, in a master stroke, the final minutes of the piece are given over to a reprise of the Credo music, so that the emphasis shifts from sin and forgiveness, to a joyous affirmation of faith, deliberately closing on the word “credo” (“I believe”).
The challenge of turning a highly skilled classical choir into an authentic jazz choir with a close-microphone technique continues into the remainder of the programme, which features a selection of classic vocal jazz arrangements of some of the great jazz standards, many of which were written for the world’s leading vocal groups, including The Swingle Singers, The King’s Singers and New York Voices. All of these arrangements were originally written to have one voice on each part, but take on an identity of their own when performed by a whole choir. Many of the vocal techniques on display in these arrangements are there in Mass in Blue, but these arrangements go further to stretch the vocal capabilities of any choir brave enough to tackle them!
Ward Swingle’s arrangement of Love walked in is unusual among his output in that it was written not for The Swingle Singers (which he founded and directed for 22 years), but for the choir of South Haven High School, Michigan. The arrangement has much in common with one of his biggest hits, All the things you are—an opening verse that presents the tune in simple chordal fashion and gives way to a swinging scat section in the middle—but this little gem is receiving its premiere recording here, and deserves to be more widely heard. The scat section takes the form of a gently swinging jazz waltz, the simple, understated nature of the arrangement belying the sheer dexterity needed by the singers in the instrumental imitation that is such a strong feature of Ward’s arrangements.
This is followed by Darmon Meader’s arrangement of On a clear day, a classic song in its own right, taken from the Lerner/Lane musical of the same name, which was written for New York Voices (in which Darmon still sings Bass). This arrangement has become a classic in the repertoire of jazz choirs around the world since its debut on the New York Voices album A Day Like This, and it’s a real pleasure to be able to showcase it here with Nonsuch Singers, with a wonderful scat solo from Joanna Forbes L’Estrange.
Then follows another great Gershwin song, Someone to watch over me, arranged by the Musical Director of Voices of Liberty and Voctave, Jamey Ray. Thick, luscious chords are the order of the day here, with the solo set in a key low enough that allows Joanna to use the full colour and range of her voice in a completely different way to Mass in Blue. Although originally written and recorded by a smaller a cappella group, this arrangement really seems to come into its own sung by a choir, let loose on the richly-scored chords that are such a delight to sing.
Alexander L’Estrange’s arrangement of the swing classic, Beyond the Sea, which was originally created for The King’s Singers, on their Great American Songbook album, is augmented here with added jazz trio. Once again, the individual singers get to showcase their own solo capabilities, crooning the melody and scatting a solo in homage to the guitarist George Benson, while the rest of the choir weaves a backing texture that incorporates big band swing, Mantovani strings, and even a brief hornpipe.
Next up is a Count Basie classic, Li’l Darlin’, from his 1958 album The Atomic Mr Basie, in a vocal transcription by Ward Swingle. The laid-back swing provides the perfect showcase for a choir to indulge in the warm glow of the thickly-scored harmonies, with their deep and rich bass lines, with a gentle vocalisation of the original trumpet solo. Both this and the following arrangement were written for The Swingle Singers’ 1979 album, Skyliner, which featured vocalisations of some of the great big band arrangements. The unique feature of the arrangements on this album, of which Artie Shaw’s Back Bay Shuffle is a brilliant example, is that the only change that was made to the existing big band arrangements was to add words, written by John Hendricks. The singers vocalise the exact big band scores, with groups of singers taking on 5 sax parts, 4 trumpet parts and 4 trombone parts, with extra solo lines over the top. The result is a rich tapestry of sound that recreates exactly the thrill of a big band in full flight.
Finally, Michel Legrand’s touching and expressive song, How do you keep the music playing?, brings the album to a close, in a beautiful arrangement written by Alexander L’Estrange for Joanna’s final concert with The Swingle Singers in 2004, and released as the lead track on the L’Estranges in the Night debut album, New things to say. Michel Legrand passed away during the production of this album, and we would like to dedicate this track to his memory.
About the artists
Joanna Forbes L’Estrange is an internationally renowned British soprano and jazz vocalist, specialising in contemporary music of all styles. A Master of Arts music graduate of Oxford University, she began her career as soprano and Musical Director of the five-time Grammy® award-winning a cappella group the Swingle Singers and, since then, has enjoyed a busy freelance career as a concert artist, studio session singer, song writer, choral composer and choral leader. She has also appeared on television as a judge for the Sky 1 series Sing: Ultimate A Cappella.
Joanna has performed on many of the world’s most famous stages, from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Tokyo’s Orchard Hall to La Scala Milan and the Châtelet in Paris. In the UK, she has sung to a packed O2 Arena with Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra and at the Proms, Edinburgh International Festival and Glastonbury as well as for the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She is much in demand as the soloist for Will Todd’sMass in Blue and her solo concert repertoire also includes Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts and numerous works by Steve Reich, Stockhausen, John Adams and Luciano Berio, whose iconic masterpiece Sinfonia she has performed fifty times with the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. Recordings include a cappella and solo jazz albums, contemporary orchestral works, CDs with the award-winning chamber choir Tenebrae and hundreds of soundtracks to video games and Hollywood films.
Joanna’s choral compositions and songs are published by RSCM, Faber Music and andagio. In 2018, she made history by organising and conducting the first ever entirely female recording session at London’s Abbey Road Studios, recording her song Twenty-first-century Woman as a charity single for International Women’s Day with an all-female band, choir and production team. All proceeds from downloads of the song—available from all music platforms— go to charities supporting girls’ education worldwide.
Visit website: joannaforbeslestrange.com
High-quality singing, innovative programmes and communicative performances are the hallmarks of Nonsuch Singers. The choir has gained a reputation for stylistic versatility in a cappella and accompanied works ranging from the Renaissance to the present day. Concerts have featured a great many works by living British composers.
Founded in 1977, Nonsuch Singers owes its name to the location of its first—informal— rehearsal, held on the site of Nonsuch Palace. The choir of some 40 members typically gives six or seven concerts a year, regularly performing with some of the UK’s leading instrumental ensembles and nest young vocal soloists.
The choir has had four Music Directors over the course of its history: Garrett O’Brien (1977- 1981), Michael Hodges (1981-1996), Graham Caldbeck (1996-2012) and Tom Bullard, appointed in January 2013.
Highlights have included Monteverdi’s Vesperswith His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts at St Martin-in-the-Fields (recommended as ‘Critic’s Choice’ in the Times); a critically acclaimed concert of French Baroque works, edited by Lionel Sawkins, with an orchestra led by Catherine Mackintosh and soloists including Andrew Kennedy and Emma Kirkby; and the first complete modern performance of Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer’s opera, Zaïde, Reine de Grenade, celebrating the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. In 2017, the choir celebrated its 40th anniversary with a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Southwark Cathedral.
Nonsuch Singers has given a number of world premieres, including John Tavener’s Exhortation and Kohima in the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall (televised) and Wild Ways, Roxanna Panufnik’s setting of Zen poems for double choir and shakuhachi (a Japanese flute). In October 2014, the choir was privileged to give the first UK performance of To the Field of Stars by Gabriel Jackson, and in 2016 released its first commercial recording, with Convivium Records, featuring To the Field of Stars alongside other pieces on the theme of stars and the heavens.
Visit website: nonsuchsingers.org.uk
Tom Bullard trained at King’s College, Cambridge, and enjoys a varied career as solo baritone, teacher, choral director and vocal coach, having studied singing with Russell Smythe. In January 2013, he was appointed Musical Director of Nonsuch Singers.
Recent solo performances have included Mozart Requiem, Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs, Haydn The Creation, Reich The Cave and Einhorn Voices of Light (with the LSO). Stage roles include Marcello in La Bohème, Jack Rance in La Fanciulla del West, Figaro in The Barber of Seville, and Dandini in La Cenerentola, as well as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls and Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd. Other highlights have included Berio’s Sinfonia with Antonio Pappano and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia at the BBC Proms, as well as with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and the world premiere of Azio Corghi’s opera, ¿Pia?, at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome.
From 2001, Tom spent eight years with The Swingle Singers, the last four as Musical Director. Under his direction, the group toured Europe, the USA, Asia and South America, and performed with some of the world’s nest orchestras and conductors. Tom’s own arrangements have been recorded on a number of The Swingle Singers albums and have proved popular with choirs and ensembles worldwide.
In addition to his post with Nonsuch Singers, Tom is Head of Singing at Eltham College, and also teaches singing at Westminster Under School, as well as working as a vocal coach for National Youth Music theatre. Recordings include several albums with the Choir of King’s College for EMI, and The Swingle Singers. He has also recorded MacMillan’s Since it was the Day of Preparation for Delphian, and was musical director for Nonsuch Singers’ debut album, To the Field of Stars, for Convivium.
Visit website: tombullard.net
- Mass in Blue; Kyrie - Will Todd
- Mass in Blue; Gloria - Will Todd
- Mass in Blue; Credo - Will Todd
- Mass in Blue; Sanctus - Will Todd
- Mass in Blue; Benedictus - Will Todd
- Mass in Blue; Agnus Dei - Will Todd
- Love walked in - arr. Ward Swingle
- On a clear day - arr. Darmon Meader
- Someone to watch over me - arr. Jay Ray
- Beyond the sea - arr. Alexander L'Estrange
- Li'l Darlin' - arr. Ward Swingle
- Back Bay Shuffle - arr. Ward Swingle
- How do you keep the music playing - arr. Alexander L'Estrange
Catalogue number: CR047
Conductor Tom Bullard
Soprano Joanna Forbes L’estrange
Piano John Turville
Bass Alexander L’estrange
Drums Felix Higginbottom
Engineering & Editing Al Forbes
Mastering Adaq Khan
Recording Locations Westminster Under School and Old Stable Studio
Producer Alexander L’estrange
Artist Photography Mike Cooter
Cover Artwork Catherine Barnes
Creative Director John Bevan
Executive Producer Adrian Green