Cuppa Joe
Pressed Café
Sunday, April 23, 2017 – 3 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Cuppa Joe is a quartet of four Ottawa vocalists, who combine their voices in jazz arrangements of standards, classic and modern.

Peter Feldman (r) filled in for instruments throughout Cuppa Joe's afternoon show at Pressed ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Peter Feldman (r) filled in for instruments throughout Cuppa Joe's afternoon show at Pressed ©Brett Delmage, 2017

That's it. No piano. No guitar. No bass or drums. Just soprano, alto, tenor, and bass vocals, plus very occasional hand percussion. And yet their voices filled the Pressed café completely on Sunday afternoon, in two sets that were consistently warmly received and earned quiet attention.

Cuppa Joe follows in the tradition of groups which include The Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices: vocal ensembles who use close harmony and clever arrangements to sing jazz a cappella. For their show on Sunday, the quartet did use microphones and amplification to balance the voices and to ensure clarity right to the back of the café, which worked very well.

The group – Valérie Bouillant (soprano), Deanna Rozon (alto), John Wilson (tenor), and Peter Feldman (baritone) – sung what was clearly a carefully-prepared program of 22 songs, 11 in each set. They divided their show into two themed sets: one vintage, one modern. They even changed their appearance for the second set, doffing jackets and the men changing ties.

Vocal jazz is customarily a back-and-forth conversation between the instruments and the voices. The instrumentalists usually introduce the song, and come back in once or several times within it, echoing and commenting on the vocal sections in instrumental bridges. They also provide a pitch check for the vocals.

Instead, Cuppa Joe provided their own instrumentals – adding innovative scatting sections and vocal percussion, as well as finger-snaps. Before each song, they took their pitch from tones on a phone.

And they kept it varied. Their singing was a constantly shifting soundscape: one line would be sung in unison, then the next solo. The women alternated with the men, or one singer would take the lead while the others sang wordless harmony underneath. In some places, Bouillant's high soprano soared over the other three; in others, Feldman's baritone anchored the lyrics. In several songs, Feldman provided a deep steady popping rhythm over which the other three sang, which worked well.

I particularly enjoyed their scatting-only version of the Pink Panther theme by Henry Mancini, in which they deftly negotiated all the fast corners of the tune. They provided all the vocal horns (and mutes) and percussion in a vibrant, multi-voiced rendition which grabbed the audience's attention.

But the lyrics were also given their due. All four had excellent enunciation – you could understand every word even when they were singing in unison – and in songs like “I Got Rhythm”, “Almost Like Being in Love”, and “How High the Moon” they captured the happy energy of the songs. I liked Rozon's wistful lead vocal on “Up on the Roof”, the group's sincere and sweet rendition of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square”, and the warmth they brought to “I'll Never Smile Again”. Throughout they sang strictly from memory; there were no lyrics sheets on-stage.

There were a few places where I felt their voices didn't blend quite as well: for example, in the demanding Lennon/McCartney song “Because” in the second set, although they still captured the rapt, still feel of that song.

The voices-only approach did mean that the songs tended to be shorter – no five-minute sax solos! Many of the songs they sung, for example, their opening number, “Love is Here to Stay”, only have a few verses plus a chorus – and there's only so long one can go repeating lines or choruses. That meant there was less time for the audience to get into a song before it was over.

In a few songs, such as “Someone to Watch Over Me”, they didn't sing the entire song, dropping the introductory verse. I would have rather had them sing all the lyrics and get a longer immersion in the song – and hear it as originally written with an emphasis on the words.

Other highlights of the show included “Misty”, their voices weaving together to evoke its sweet melancholy; Laura Nyro's “Stoned Soul Picnic”, a magical jubilation; and James Taylor's “Lonesome Road”, a gospel number with Wilson providing a heartfelt lead. I was impressed with their version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's “Black Orpheus”, which Feldman arranged, which paid full justice to the beautiful melody and evocative lyrics.

The group closed with “Lullaby of Birdland”, a classic jazz vocal number by George Shearing in which their voices smoothly fit together in ribbons of sound. The audience responded with strong and extended applause, and persuaded the group to sing one more number: “Java Jive” with Wilson and Feldman providing emphatic solos and everyone singing the upbeat number with a smile. There was lots more clapping and cheers at the end.

It's a brave undertaking, stepping off into the unknown with just your voice. Cuppa Joe has clearly worked hard to do that well, including using and developing arrangements that make the best use of their voices. They definitely clicked with their audience on Sunday. It will be interesting to hear how they develop and what material they choose to do next.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  1. Love is Here to Stay / George and Ira Gershwin (arr. Darmon Meader)
  2. Someone to Watch Over Me / George and Ira Gershwin (arr. Teena Chinn)
  3. My One and Only Love / Guy Wood/Robert Mellin (arr. Paris Rutherford)
  4. I Got Rhythm / George and Ira Gershwin (arr. Chris. Clapham)
  5. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square / Eric Maschwitz/Manning Sherwin (arr. Gene Puerling)
  6. I'll Never Smile Again / Ruth Lowe (arr. Debbie Fleming)
  7. The Very Thought of You / Ray Noble (arr. Paris Rutherford)
  8. Wonderful World / George David Weiss and Bob Thiele (arr. Mark Brymer)
  9. How High the Moon / Morgan Lewis and Nancy Hamilton (arr. Stephen Zegree)
  10. Misty / Erroll Garner and Johnny Burke (arr. Russ Robinson)
  11. Almost Like Being in Love / Frederick Loewe (arr. Darmon Meader)

    (set break)

  12. Pink Panther Theme / Henry Mancini (arr. Jay Althouse)
  13. Because / Lennon and McCartney (arr. R. Emerson)
  14. Up on the Roof / Gerry Goffin and Carole King (arr. Deek Sharon/Anne Raugh)
  15. In My Life / Lennon and McCartney (arr. Darmon Meader)
  16. Black Orpheus / Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Maria (arr. Peter Feldman)
  17. God Only Knows / Brian Wilson (arr. Mervyn Warren)
  18. Route 66 / Bobby Troup (arr. Dick Averre)
  19. Stoned Soul Picnic / Laura Nyro (arr. P. Eldridge/D. Meader)
  20. That Lonesome Road / James Taylor (arr. D Entsminger)
  21. Lullaby of Birdland / G. Shearing and G. David Weiss (arr. Kerry Marsh)
  22. Java Jive / M Drake and B Oakland (arr. Kirby Shaw)