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Last week, the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet performed for a private party at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda—a show that also served as a final rehearsal for the group’s Nov. 10 Blues Alley debut to launch its new CD, Half-Past Swing. Many of the guests, out-of-towners attending a business conference, were unfamiliar with jazz singing and initially seemed somewhat perplexed by the UVJQ’s hip harmonies and tongue-twister lyrics. But the crowd gradually warmed to the black-clad quartet’s high-spirited performances of popular standards, originals, and its specialty: vocalese adaptations of big-band arrangements. By the end of the evening, people had drifted from the buffet at the back of the room to the front tables, and the UVJQ had won a cluster of new fans.

The seeds of the group were sown over two decades ago, when Ginny Carr, who sings the quartet’s alto parts and writes most of its arrangements and original compositions, met tenor Robert McBride at William and Mary. Both Carr, who had just completed a B.S. in psychology, and McBride, who was studying for a liberal arts degree, had been active in the college’s musical and theatrical groups. With a drummer, they formed a vocal-instrumental trio, with Carr playing piano and McBride on bass, and spent three seasons entertaining the country-club set at the Tides Inn in Irvington, Va.

Later, while working on a music-education degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, Carr was introduced to recordings by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, the pioneering late-’50s vocal trio that won acclaim for setting lyrics to the compositions of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and other jazz artists. “The moment I heard LH&R,” Carr recalls, “I knew that’s what I wanted to do: form a straight-ahead jazz vocal group capable of capturing the harmonies and swing of a kickass big band.” She and McBride then organized the first incarnation of the UVJQ: four voices backed by a rhythm section and two horns.

The mid-’80s found both Carr and McBride living in the Washington area, holding down lucrative high-tech jobs that subsidized their ongoing musical efforts. By 1992, after rehearsing with a variety of singers, they had progressed sufficiently to cut their first CD. At that point, both the group—a trio including vocalist Amy Brady—and the album were called “Uptown.” The trio’s repertoire combined vocalese adaptations of Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson arrangements with standards and more recent compositions by Dave Frishberg, Stanley Turrentine, Charles Mingus, and Joni Mitchell. Carr says, “Uptown is a snapshot of where we were then, but I feel we’ve grown a great deal since. Not only bigger, but much better, too.”

At a 1994 Virginia Music Educators Association convention, McBride and his wife met Lisanne Lyons, an associate professor of music at Virginia Tech and founder of the school’s vocal jazz curriculum. Prior to teaching, Lyons had spent six years singing with U.S. Air Force bands, then embarked on a solo career, appearing at jazz clubs and festivals as well as touring with the Broadway musical City of Angels. In 1997, Lyons, eager to resume performing, auditioned for the UVJQ’s soprano slot. “She really blew us away with how she nailed those high notes,” McBride recalls.

Now all the UVJQ needed was a bass voice, and the group found it in David Nokes, a member of the U.S. Air Force’s Singing Sergeants. Nokes collaborated with Carr on new arrangements, and, after exhaustive rehearsals, the quartet achieved what the members believed was a fully professional sound. Early in 1998, the UVJQ embarked on its most ambitious project to date, recording a second CD with big-band backing. By May, the quartet had finished all the instrumental tracks and recorded five of the vocals. Then disaster struck: Professional and personal obligations forced Nokes to leave the group. Facing the twin dilemmas of finding another singer to replace him and then re-recording all of the vocals, Carr, who had financed the CD with her own savings, was about to give up. Then Lyons received a call from Roger Reynolds, a singer she had worked with in Miami, who had just moved to Richmond. Confident that he could fill the slot vacated by Nokes, Lyons introduced him to Carr and McBride. Reynolds proved a quick study and joined the quartet last January. Since then, he has moved to Boone, N.C., but dutifully makes the eight-hour drive to D.C. for the UVJQ’s gigs.

Half-Past Swing’s jacket photographs, shot at the Ice House in Herndon, where the UVJQ appears one weekend each month, depict the singers in a festive mood. On the front cover, all four imbibe cocktails, with Carr and Lyons perched on the bar. Above, a chalkboard reads “No Clams Tonight.” (“Clam” is musicians’ slang for a sour note.) But this breezy, loungey image belies the polished musicianship inside.

Denied the solo jazz singer’s freedom to improvise and express personal emotions, vocal-jazz ensembles must rely on collective harmonic and rhythmic precision. Half-Past Swing demonstrates the UVJQ’s exacting command of these qualities. Four of the album’s tracks feature multilayered vocalese treatments of swing or bebop big-band numbers, including two LH&R Basie adaptations, “It’s Sand, Man” and “Li’l Darlin.” The disc also showcases three Carr-penned originals: the Brazilian-flavored “Close Your Eyes,” the riffy “What If I Told You?” and “Jouet,” a catchy Franglais caprice.

Even in a studio, where clams can be technologically shucked, such intricate vocalizing is difficult to achieve. At Blues Alley, the UVJQ will demonstrate how impressively it can reproduce the CD’s complex arrangements in live performance. Manhattan Transfer fans might be tempted to regard the group as a road-company version of that popular jazz-oriented quartet. But if they listen closely, they will find that the UVJQ has stronger voices, and, overall, a more challenging repertoire. If there’s a space for another vocal-jazz ensemble on the national scene, Carr and McBride’s labor-of-love quartet is poised to claim it. —Joel E. Siegel

Audio samples of Half-Past Swing and detailed biographies of the group members are available at UVJQ’s Web site, www.uptownjvq.com.