Local a cappella vocalist Jen Gies adapts the music of the Flecktones

Local a cappella vocalist Jen Gies adapts the music of the Flecktones

When Petra Haden released her solo a cappella version of The Who Sell Out last winter, her offbeat vocal renditions of Pete Townsend's rebellious guitar chords and her artful twists on Roger Daltrey's theatrical vocals added to her already growing reputation. However well-deserved the praise for Haden's work, which took three years to complete, think how much higher the stakes were for Jen Gies' current self-released project, What If . . .? —Why Not? A local a cappella artist with no prior reputation, Gies labored on the album for over 14 years with more than 20 other vocalists (and a couple of drummers), convening her ensembles first in Chicago and continuing to work on the vocal arrangements here since 1997. Add to this a previously unimaginable focus on rendering the backbreaking techniques of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones into scat and vocalese, and you'll have a glimpse of the challenges that Gies faced in bringing What If . . .? —Why Not? to fruition.

Now employed as a cook at the University Club of Vanderbilt, Gies survived much of her first seven years in Nashville by picking up running gigs as a house- and pet-sitter. She also puts her phonetics degree to use as a part-time ESL teacher at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute while she continues to prepare for certification. Given these commitments, which limit the amount of time she can spend on her intricate vocal arrangements, Gies is the polar opposite of a stereotypical Nashville music scene arriviste.

Naming her ongoing, oft-interrupted project VOI-LA (Voices or Instruments? Laryngical Arrangements?), Gies crossed her academic training in phonetics with her passion for vocalizing instrumental lines and for a cappella arrangements in a variety of genres, including church music and the jazz vocal improvisation of Ella Fitzgerald and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. This variety of inspirations, along with the endless ways that a symphony of human voices can be transfigured into instrumental parts, makes Gies' album quite engaging. Oddly enough, the limitations of the voice in aspiring to the versatility and range of a technically dazzling instrumentalist most often give this album its charm, bringing its pristine vocal stylizations back down to earth.

The better tracks on Gies' record—which is available at Tower—actually make her versions sound as if they came first (i.e., before Fleck cut them), coming out of a more natural, conversational process of complementary voices, without any loss of intricacy and with greater intimacy. Consider, for instance, her take on "Bumbershoot," an early Flecktones tour de force carried by the hyperactive dialogue of Fleck's electric banjo and Vic Wooten's space-age bass funk. When this song is in the hands of Gies and her collaborators, it loses its pinball-machine flashiness, but gains in the layering of airy, human tones being pushed by shifting time signatures and profuse chromaticism to a nearly entropic bliss.

Other tracks have the relaxed feel of an impromptu dorm session of voice majors working up their favorite tunes by Sting, whose songs are covered three times on the album. Given a fairly straight reading, these lyrics come across better than the dense, original vocalese deliveries of a couple of the Flecktones songs. With innocent hints of choir practice and glee club gatherings, frail high notes and all, they add a nice touch of humility to the advanced-school vocal arrangements.

—Bill Levine


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