I was first introduced to the King's Singers when I was in high school. They were touring the US, and our performing arts magnet was on their route from San Francisco to Los Angeles, so they graciously agreed to do a brown bag lunch/master class/q&a with the vocal music students. None of us had ever heard of them, and when our choir director, Mr. H., told us they were an all-male sextet that usually sang a capella, we expected a bunch of stuffy old British guys.
Well, they were British, and they were guys, but really only one or two of them qualified as old. They sang a couple of songs for us – the Beatle's “Money Can't Buy Me Love,” arranged in the form of a traditional madrigal, and a French folk song (which might have been “Le Belle Dans La Limosine”), and then they took questions from all of us, and showed us some different breathing and vocalizing techniques, pushed the importance of warm-ups, and generally charmed a room full of teenaged girls (mostly girls, anyway). At the end, they performed their signature closing tune, “You Are the New Day,” which remains one of my favorite songs.
Most of us, me included, were quite taken with a singer named Jeremy Jackman, their alto (aka countertenor, an adult male singer who uses a falsetto voice to provide the treble voice in a male choir). He was tall and sort of gawky, and really sweet and funny, but it's his voice that has stayed lodged in my brain for all these years, more than his face.
Cut to Saturday night around 11:50. Despite knowing that I had to be in bed early, to be up early for pre-Mass choir practice, I was half-watching Forest Gump on TNT and idly scrolling through music on my Zen Micro, when I stopped at a tune called “The Gift” from a King's Singers Christmas album. I played it, and was entranced.
It's hardly a new tune – the melody is taken from the Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts” – Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, etc. etc. – but had been re-set with Christmas lyrics, and arranged into their usual tight six-part harmony, and I was utterly enthralled, playing it through three or four times.
Fuzzy walked in at the end of the fourth play-through, and laughed at me, he said, “because you looked so focussed and cute but I didn't know what you were doing.” I threw a pillow at him. But I went to sleep with Jeremy Jackman's high notes ringing in my head.
Their Christmas album is not new (Mr. Jackman left the group in 1990), and the singers have changed a little over the years, as older members have retired and been replaced, but if you want really pure tones, really amazing harmony, and really beautiful music, they can't be beat.