I stumbled across something totally unexpected very early this morning and thought I’d share.
If the title of this post sounds familiar, it’s because Straight, No Chaser is an iconic album by Thelonius Monk originally released in 1967; re-released on CD in 1996, and; the title of the much-acclaimed 1988 documentary Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser produced by actor/director/jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood.
Anyone who knows anything about jazz has at least heard of this LP. The documentary, unfortunately, isn’t available for streaming on Netflix, but may be available to rent. Not to worry, though. The Wicked Woman is on the case! It seems that the doc is available for free on Open Culture, a site with an impressive number of free cultural and educational media.
Given the enormous stature of the LP, Monk and the documentary, it’s obvious that a musical group named Straight No Chaser (SNC) would definitely draw attention. And so it did when I was looking for something else on iTunes. At first, it was quite confusing. Did they have some connection to Monk? No. What is it that they sing and why should I care about the upcoming drop of their LP? The only way to answer those two questions was to listen, and listen I did! More importantly, I found their web site and took a moderately deep look. The first thing that makes SNC unique is that they are an a cappella group originally formed by ten young men while all were students at Indiana University. The second thing that makes them unusual is that they’ve gone through several personnel changes over their more than 12-year history, but have remained true to their sound and have become one of Indiana University’s institutional treasures. All of that aside, what truly makes this group special is that they’re really good.
I have played an instrument and/or been a singer nearly since I began talking. As I mentioned to someone, my blood cells should look like treble clefs when viewed under a microscope. The first songs I remember were by jazz vocalist Carmen McRae; the pop group The Fifth Dimension; Motown’s The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and; numerous adherents to the “Philadelphia Sound,” especially those on the Philadelphia International label, home to much-lauded legendary producers/songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. A bit later, I think, came Gil Scott-Heron’s iconic masterpiece, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and there was always my love of rock & roll.
My interest in jazz began when I was barely a teen as I listened to my uncle’s voluminous record collection back in the days of vinyl. Indeed, he taught me how to care for my records so that, even today, although I no longer have a turntable (something I hope to fix this year), I am very conscious of their upkeep. I’ve also inherited my mother’s record collection–something I haven’t considered even looking for until this moment. As with our individual book collections, together we have a number of rarities, including those that have not been re-issued on CD, much less remastered for iTunes or Amazon. So, again, reading the words “Straight No Chaser” was something of a jolt because I associated it with Monk.
As a singer, I can say that singing a capella is “difficult” at best. Most find it impossible to do and remain on pitch. Remember, there’s no instrument to remind the singer of the note that should be sung as opposed to what actually comes out. In a group, if one person is off pitch, s/he can easily bring the entire ensemble down. I’ve been in choirs where that has happened and we’ve lost competitions because of it. I should say that I am the product of a school system that places a high value on the arts, especially the performing arts. I was in two high school choirs. One, a class for credit, performed classical choral music as well as some pop with a choirmaster who was famous throughout the country. (The choir also had an off-shoot that performed separately, including a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta each year.) The other, an extra-curricular, performed gospel music led by a choirmaster who was just phenomenal in his devotion to his students and members of the choir. I’m sure that he motivated at least one or two of us to go into education because he was so very inspirational. The third choral ensemble was a class for credit even though it would now be called a “show choir,” but without as much dancing then.
Coming from the musical background I do, it isn’t all that easy to impress me, especially with pop music. Be that as it may, SNC was very impressive. They seem to have a fondness for R&B/soul music even though there is only one person of African descent in the group. They also seem to specialize in mash-ups. I have no problem with their choice of music because they get the job done with excellent arrangements, have fun and, most importantly, don’t have pitch problems–for the most part. I like them so much that I’d even consider buying a ticket to see them. Given the price of concert tickets these days, that’s saying a lot.
Their web site is neat and clean with everything anyone would want to know about the group and its members. There is also an extensive collection of videos. In my book, that’s a Very Good Thing. I wish more artists would post non-official videos instead of relying on their record companies to put out the stuff that’s been auto-tuned to death and lip-synced a day late and a dollar short. The videos on the SNC site are hosted by YouTube and, at least the ones I’ve seen, are of good to excellent quality. Many were submitted by the group’s millions of fans. Yes, you saw right. I wrote “millions.” Given that large fan base, why haven’t we heard more about them? My guess (and this is only a guess) is that their promo machine needs to be overhauled pronto. So far, they’ve relied on word-of-mouth and curious creatures like me stumbling into their site and listening to their music. That’s too bad, because they could do much better, especially since they do, or did, have a recording contract with Atlantic Records. The old WEA (Warner, Electra, Atlantic) promo and A&R machines used to be formidable. Why are they not promoting these guys? Look at the success of Justin Bieber. (I will not vomit on my laptop. I will not vomit on my laptop.) These guys are just young enough to reach the same market or, better yet, Bieber fans’ older sisters who have more money to spend. They are good looking, clean cut, wear suits when performing and know how to really sing sans auto-tune. What’s not to like about them?
So, without further ado, may I present Straight No Chaser!!
Since I know TWW readers will want an encore, grab some tissues for a tear-jerker performance. May I present one last time . . . Straight No Chaser!!
This was the last performance with the original members of the group. From what I can gather, both the then-new and the old hats performed this as their very last song. As someone who has had to do the same when high school graduation came around, I can tell you that it breaks your heart. However, you have to believe that you’re going on to something bigger and better. I am so grateful to have had the experiences I did with the people I did. I am equally glad that one of our own decided to start a Facebook page for us where we can share information and interact even though we’re spread all over the world. Performing together forged bonds that will last a lifetime. I would imagine the same is true for the members of Straight No Chaser. Hence, I understand very well the emotions they had when this last song of what they believed to be their last performance came up on the set list. I am grateful, however, that the original members are back together and doing well. So well, in fact, that a jaded former choir member/pianist/clarinetist/classical guitarist has no reservations about making her blog’s readers aware of their existence.