The past ten years have been good for those with a taste for the musically eclectic. While the top of the pop charts has generally been dominated by drearily unimaginative commercial product, all kinds of interesting styles from cross-cultural world music hybrids to groups inspired by the styles the Depression era have been appearing on record. In the midst of this, something that has become a fairly steady presence is one of the simplest, and ironically one of the most potentially creative ways of making music: acapella -- singing without instruments. Inspired by the everything from 1950s doo-wop groups to gospel singing to jazz vocal groups of the swing era, contemporary acapella groups and performers are doing some very creative things with their voices. Probably the best known is Bobby McFerrin, who had a big hit in 1988 with Don't Worry, Be Happy, but groups like the Bobs, the Nylons, Rockapella, Take 6, and the venerable doo-wop group The Persuasions have all been releasing recordings that take the voice to some interesting and enjoyable places. We're also getting to hear acapella singing as part of the world music scene with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Bulgarian Women's chorus and Zap Mama. And on the more traditional side there is the current Gregorian chant craze.
Over the past few years, people like Bobby McFerrin and the Bobs have developed some very creative new vocal techniques that have pushed the sonic and stylistic boundaries for acapella. This week, we have a wonderfully fascinating album that takes that -- for lack of a better description -- "high-tech" vocal style, and adds some very notable instrumental soloists, one at a time over the all-vocal backing. The record is by a French singer named Marc Beacco, who calls his latest recording Scampi Fritti.
Actually, Marc Beacco had an album released in the US in 1991, called Crocodile Smile that featured much the same unusual approach, but it was virtually ignored on the small label on which it appeared. This time, he is out on a somewhat larger label with wider distribution, and the record is I think a somewhat better one. It also has an impressive list of guest instrumental soloists, most American jazz musicians, including horn playing brothers Michael and Randy Brecker, trombonist Jim Pugh, bassist Neils Henning Øersted Pederson, plus Toto's guitarist Steve Lukather.
In a way, Beacco's album is a throwback to an earlier day before synthesizers made it easy to be a one-man band. Beacco painstakingly overdubs sometimes dozens of individual vocal parts, ranging from dense backing choruses to mouth percussion, he all performs by himself. And although he doesn't quite have the superhuman range of Bobby McFerrin, who do doubt was an influence, Beacco is definitely in the same league as McFerrin in terms of what he can do with his voice. Making Scampi Fritti even more interesting is that almost all of the vocals are wordless. This near cacophony of voices provides harmonic backing, bass and percussion for the guest soloists to do their thing on top. It's music into which one can't help but be drawn for its sheer sonic novelty.
On his last album, Beacco enlisted mainly European musicians to help out. This time, the French-recorded vocal tracks were brought to the US for the addition of the soloists, who seem to be having a good time with the rather unusual setting, with perhaps the most surprising being the collaboration with drummer Dennis Chambers.
The album leads off with what amounts to its title track, Live from the "Scampi Fritti." The guest on this piece is trombonist Jim Pugh who himself does a little overdubbing to play two horn parts. All the rest, however, is Marc Beacco and his many voices, in this rhythmically attractive piece.
Though most of the album has a jazzy tinge to its sound, Beacco does a little verbal hip-hop here are there. A piece called And the Giraffe Said features trumpet man Randy Brecker, who also does a weird little rap while Beacco lays down the beat with his mouth.
Beacco shows his McFerrin influence in the vocalized bass and percussion parts on Nuage-Rouge. Randy's brother Michael Brecker puts in a really outstanding tenor sax solo over Beacco's masterful wordless singing.
There is one piece with lyrics, a whimsical composition co-written with Laurant Cugny called The Pasta Dance. Cugny provided the horn arrangement that makes the track even more unconventional.
Another musical surprise comes on Negra Paloma, whose guest soloist is Juan-Jose Mosalini, who plays the bandoneon, the accordion relative that is the trademark of tango music.
The track featuring guitarist Steve Lukather is, not unexpectedly, the most rock-like piece. It's called Cereal Killer, spelled as in breakfast cereal. While Lukather wails away, Beacco sings something akin to jazzy doo-wop on the only track where there is any serious electronic processing of his vocals.
For most of the album, Beacco's one-man vocal ensemble provides the backing for the guest soloists. But on On Tiny Giant with guest drummer Dennis Chambers, the roles are reversed to a more conventional situation. Beacco still does some vocal percussion, but Chambers really uses his drums creatively, while the melodic focus moves more toward Beacco. The results is a standout track on this thoroughly distinctive album.
The album ends with a short piece without any guests. Good Morning is another fascinating blend that has a kind of Brazilian jungle sound.
French vocalist Marc Beacco's new album Scampi Fritti is a very creative and thoroughly distinctive recording that combines the high-tech vocal techniques of the new 1980s/90s acapella singers with guest instrumental soloists. The arrangements turn the usual order upside down: the singing provides the backing while the instruments generally play the melody lines. Making the music all the more unconventional is the fact that except for one track, the vocals are all wordless. Yet another twist is how much of a danceable beat the all-voice backing can provide. Beacco writes compositions one would never expect to hear in an acapella setting. The result is music that's an instant ear-grabber, and which will probably appeal to a fairly wide range of tastes, though being as far off the beaten path as it is, there are likely to be some who might not take to it at first.
Sonically, the album is nicely done. After I got over the sheer ambitiousness of the arrangements and the scale of the overdubbing that went into the record, I realized that very little in the way of electronic effects were applied to Beacco's voice, something that makes his performance even more impressive. The liner notes point out that except for small instances on two tracks the album is free of any synthesizers.
It you're getting at all bored with today's music and want something that really does sound refreshingly different, Marc Beacco's Scampi Fritti fills the bill nicely.
This is George Graham.
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