By Marcina Zaccaria
You have to be ready to accept vocals that range to unexpected places, when listening to Roomful of Teeth. Ascending and plummeting, their music challenges the melodic standard with bits of operatic tone mixed with a smooth choral sound— all that while pop screams through. The buzzing of a low tone competes with the creaking of an open door. Music flows effortlessly in long, held tones. It is pleasing to the ears.
The performing group, known for their uncommon vocals, earned a Best Chamber Ensemble/Small Ensemble Performance Grammy Award. Their music has been featured in operas and with in films with pop stars like Beyoncé (Homecoming). So, their appearance is a bit disarming. Under the Artistic Direction of Brad Wells, eight performers comprise a Roomful of Teeth: Estelí Gomez, Martha Cluver, Caroline Shaw, Virginia Kelsey, Steven Bradshaw, Avery Griffin, Dashon Burton, and Cameron Beauchamp. The singers stood plainly in a semi-circle, surrounding a drummer.
The first song provided a perfect bit of traveling music to get the show moving forward: In “The Ascendant” by Wally Gunn, the smooth vocals are harmonic, rhythmic, and balanced. The language is spare. If there’s a message, it’s about how we follow, from a road beginning slowly, to ascendant grace. Though lyrics factor into Roomful of Teeth’s presentation, word repetition is often valued above narrative storytelling. Attention is paid to authenticity and depth.
In the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, overlooking Columbus Circle, cars whirl around in the darkness of night. Lighting inside the room is deep purple, while the glass to the street reveals a twinge of green and tall buildings overlooking Central Park. Astonishing in appearance, with Lighting Design by Matt Berman, it’s a dreamy location for the bouncing, glossy phrasing found in Roomful of Teeth‘s vocal calisthenics.
Roomful of Teeth appear so unassuming, in a long red ball gown, champagne colored sparkling dress, green pants, and simple black button down shirts. Never really dancing, they focus on the microphone in front of them for the 75-minute performance. Increasing their numbers, bulked on both sides by The Dessoff Choirs, we finally see formality. Conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather led both choir and ensemble through “None More Than You”, composed by Eve Beglarian.
The last piece, introduced by Composer William Brittelle, spoke to his psychotic break 20 years ago. The 43 year old composer introduced the piece, explaining that the composition, called “Psychedelics”, was inspired at a time when he was in an “out of control place.” He said he “wanted to look at it.” In fact, it’s the most winding composition of the evening. With the addition of a keyboard and sound designed by Scott Stauffer, each voice soared out to the back of the room with low tones cutting through and echoing high notes completing the already rich composition. Extreme in comparison, the composition pushed the limits of possibility, expressing an essential theatricality that was less dominantly present in the earlier pieces.
Finally, Roomful of Teeth closed with “The Isle” by Caroline Shaw. Dashon Burton sang Shakespearean text of Prospero, while wispy tones carried the story of Ariel and Prospero, all from The Tempest. While American Songbook often brings attention to popular music, Roomful of Teeth really celebrated the contemporary composer. Different from art rock or jazz vocals, their sound sparks imagination, never rousing one from their seat, but rather allowing quiet appreciation of technique matched by innovation.
Photos: Lincoln Center
Roomful of Teeth performed at the Appel Room
Thursday, February 13 at 8:30PM
Part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series