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Bulgarian State Choir (Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) | Studio Jams
Enchanting Bulgarian Folk Singing | Session Musicians Plying Their Trade

Each month we highlight a musical artist or group that you may not have heard of and/or a venue for discovering new music. This month, we explore the Bulgarian State Choir singing beautifully arranged folksongs with unusual haunting harmonies and vocalizations that you've likely never heard before. We also look at Studio Jams, an online collection where you can watch musicians collaborating to arrange songs and then performing them ad hoc.

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Bulgarian State Choir (Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares)

After hearing a cut on the radio from the 1987 album Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares1 (The Mystery of The Bulgarian Voices), I knew I had to buy it. The album, released by Nonesuch records, is a recording of the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir (aka “Bulgarian State Choir,” aka “Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares”). It was unlike anything I had ever heard; mysterious, enchanting, alien, joyous, haunting, powerful, otherworldly, almost mystical … so many ways to describe it. The choir was formed in 1952, consisting of singers drawn from the rural areas of Bulgaria. They sing six-part arrangements of traditional folk songs, arranged by eminent Bulgarian composers, creating sophisticated harmonies and compelling rhythms.

The songs on the 1987 album are often sung without a strict meter, i.e., in tempo rubato or free time, as appears to be the tradition in some Bulgarian and Romanian folksong styles. At other times, the songs are very rhythmic. The dynamics are dramatic, sometimes going from a whisper to powerful full chorus hits and then back.

The vocalizations are quite unique, with trills, grace notes, and a sort of slow tremolo a bit like yodeling (but with a narrower interval between the two notes), or short bursts of cacophonic singing in one song. The harmonies are distinct and mostly different from traditional western harmonies we are used to hearing. They sing in modal scales, sometimes with dissonant harmonies, and often with diaphonic singing (i.e., parallel harmonies).

Most of the cuts on the 1987 album are sung acapella, but a few are accompanied by what sounds to me like folk instruments, including wooden flutes (or maybe recorders), a double reed instrument that sounds a bit like a bagpipe chanter, some bowed string instruments, and some sort of frame drum.

Here are some places to sample their music:

There are many more cuts from them available with a search on YouTube or Google.

Studio Jams

My first and still main exposure to Studio Jams has been through their numerous postings on YouTube, though they also have their own dedicated website. These are recordings by top-notch session and touring musicians in the studio as they collaborate on what they want to play (usually a standard), work out the arrangement, and then record the song. Most are instrumentals (though a few include vocals as well) done in the classic head-solo-head2 format preferred by jazz musicians.

I really like these sessions for several reasons:

  • The musicians are all outstanding, including famous musicians, but also many session players that I had never heard of. What they come up with in a few minutes is amazing. It’s just great music.
  • You get a glimpse into the process that musicians go through in creating music. This is not songwriting per se (as these are almost all existing popular songs), but rather what I might describe as “collaborative arranging”. This is a really common phenomena when experienced musicians are getting together for an ad hoc session. It is the process of discussing and agreeing on the tempo, style, transitions, beginning and ending, and so forth. You get to see the collective brainstorming and give-and-take. Typically, it is just a glimpse … perhaps 60 seconds or a couple minutes up front before they launch into the actual recording.
  • You get exposed to many really good musicians that you’ve probably never heard of. If you are a jazz aficionado, you probably will know most of the songs, but may discover a bunch of new musicians, as I did. If you are not steeped in the jazz standard repertoire, then you will likely encounter many new songs. In either case, it is a good place to discover new music.

 Here are some good songs to start with:

  • Watermelon Man—A great funky rendition of this Herbie Hancock classic, starts with about three minutes of the musicians deciding which songs to play, the solo sequence, how to end it, etc. Personnel are keyboardist Mark Nanni, guitarist Brian Golden, drummer Dave Hanlon, bassist John Viavattine, Jr., saxophonist John Viavattine, and trumpeter Bob Viavattine.
  • Europa—This tasteful, driving rendition of this Carlos Santana instrumental goes right into the recording. The musicians are guitarist Gil Parris, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, drummer James Rouse and pianist Jason Long.
  • Superstition—Only the first 40 seconds of this recording are the musicians deciding on the key and solo sequence. Drummer Josh Dion sings on this Stevie Wonder song. Other personnel include bassist Ron France, pianists Donald Robinson and Mark Nanni, and guitarist Mark Doyle.
  • Work Song—A jazz classic, originally by Nat Adderley in 1960, the first two minutes of this recording are deciding on the song, key, reminding the chord changes, solos, and ending, etc. Personnel are keyboardist Mark Nanni, guitarist Brian Golden, drummer Dave Hanlon, bassist John Viavattine, Jr., saxophonist John Viavattine, and trumpeter Bob Viavattine.
  • Georgia on My Mind—The classic ballad, written by Hoagy Carmichael and made famous by Ray Charles’ amazing rendition. This Studio Jams recording starts with about 45 seconds of a couple of musicians sharing why they like these kinds of sessions, followed by a couple minutes of working out the arrangement before starting the recording. Personnel include guitarist Kevin Hanson, saxophonist Grace Kelly, bassist Chico Huff, keyboardist Matt King, and drummer Tracy Alexander.
  • The Chicken—A funky classic originally recorded by James Brown and another version recorded by Jaco Pastorius. In this recording, the first 60 seconds are discussions of the arrangement. Personnel on this session include bassist Victor Bailey, guitarist Jeff Golub, pianist Matt King, and drummer Anton Fig.
  • Misty—This goes right into the recording without the upfront collaborative arranging. The personnel include Larry Carlton (one of the best living jazz guitarists), Joey DeFrancesco (one of the best living Hammond B3 jazz organists), bassist Gerald Veasley, drummer Byron Landham, saxophonist Chris Farr, and percussionist Emedin Rivera.

Many more songs can be found at the Studio Jams YouTube page.


1 See Wikipedia entry here, for more on this album. -- Return to article text above

2 The head-solo-head form is especially common when jazz musicians are playing in an ad hoc group, rather than a band that practices regularly together. The head of a song is the main melody with underlying chord changes, typically including both the verse and chorus (or AABA sections). In the head-solo-head form, the musicians play through the head once or twice, then go into a series of improvised solos using the chord structure of the head. Then at the end, they play the head once again. If interested, here is a more detailed description of what the head-solo-head form is and how it works, and here is a pretty interesting Reddit discussion on what head/solo/head structure is and why jazz musicians use it. -- Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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