Driving down Durham's Martin Luther King Parkway, possibly its most attractive thoroughfare, you reach Industrial Lane. Despite its name that conjures up a collection of dirty factories and such, it is mostly an eclectic hodgepodge of unique small stores that have not much in common. Nestled between a meditation center and a print shop is one of the Triangle area's best kept secrets and a certified musical gem: The Sharp 9 Gallery and Jazz Club, run, in part, by the Durham Jazz Workshop, Inc. It is all of the things mentioned in those names: an art gallery specializing in depictions of great jazz artists and their recordings, a small jazz club with a varied and active performance schedule, and a venue for amateurs to learn and perform America's greatest, and only, totally indigenous musical genre. It is indeed a treasure among the mundane.
Once I saw the listing for the appearance of the jazz vocal a cappella group Avante at Sharp 9, I looked them up online and was quite surprised to learn that they are based in Durham and have been around since 2011. The group has gone through several personnel flips even in their relatively short history, but the current eight singers are Kathleen Jasinskas, Lacey Knapp. Amy Pruitt, Kimberly Slentz-Kesler, Bradley Yoder, Kevin Badanes, Charlie Hyland and Bill Adams. They are configured in a somewhat traditional SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) setting with two voices per range. Additionally, Badanes, at times, provides a kind of beat-box and vocally produced drum sound effects.
On time (a rather un-jazzlike practice), the octet emerged from a back room and walked up the aisle with nothing but microphones in hand and onto a stage that barely fit all of them, plus the piano that is always there. They opened the show with Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" from his Threepenny Opera. I find this to be one of the most overrated and repetitive standards, but it was a great vehicle for Avante to show off their stuff with some nice percussive backgrounds and way deep bass by the men while the women formed some wonderfully arranged harmonies. They seemed a bit physically awkward on this stage (what group of eight people wouldn't?), but they eventually grew more at ease. Next up was "Feelin' Good," a big hit by Nina Simone, composed by Anthony Newley. Avante performed it with sublime chorale-like warmth that hinted at the "legit" background of these singers, many in area choruses and opera companies.
The stunningly perfect and pristine quality of the sound itself, with much credit going to sound engineer Darin Beery, almost immediately caught my attention. It could have also been the (probably) very expensive microphones they used and the venue's system, but each voice was clear, full and distinct at the ideal volume. As the saying goes, they could have read the dictionary and with those acoustics that would have sufficed. They proceeded with a ravishing version of "When Sunny Gets Blue," one of the great jazz standards by Marvin Fisher, a relatively little-known songwriter. With their eight voices, they have the arsenal to execute adventurous arrangements with stunning harmonies that vocal quartets like Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices or Singers Unlimited (a few of Avante's influences) were/are unable to do. This also was evident in their version of "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" as arranged for the Swingle Singers. Their very eclectic program (don't just call them "jazz" singers) continued and closed out the first half with Sting's "An Englishman in New York" followed by "Sway," a rumba instrumental that was a big hit in the 1950s.
The second half began with a sobering and touching prayer-like performance in recognition of the horrible scenes this day coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia: U2's "MLK," a deeply moving lullaby in his memory. Then, for the first time, they broke down into slightly smaller groups for the next two songs. The four men sang Van Morrison's "Moondance," a forgettable arrangement that was the low-point of the evening. That was quickly forgotten as next was one of those moments when something of such visceral beauty and power grabbed every single person in attendance, and we hung on every note and word. A quintet of three men and two women sang "Run to You" by fellow a cappella group Pentatonix.
They reached back and borrowed another Swingle Singers arrangement, this time the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill." In their intro, it was said that when they first formed they couldn't sing this, but they think they have now made enough progress! It was beautifully mournful and evocative. They also deftly performed the cascading arpeggios of Billy Joel's "She's Always a Woman" and made it seem that instruments on this would be totally superfluous.
Since Sharp 9 is the real deal as a jazz club, it was quite fitting that Avante chose to end their program with two classics, though quite different. You can't talk about jazz vocal groups without mentioning Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, and one of their most iconic and swingin' numbers was the great parody of psychoanalysis, “Twisted.” Bass Bill Adams did a great job with Annie Ross' legendary solo and vocalise. The closer was June Christy's up-tempo and optimistic “Give Me the Simple Life,” a bit of attempted cheer in these chaotic times.