Grammy-winning a cappella group The Swingles prepare for London Jazz Festival show

By Abigail Cutler
October 15 2019, 15.15

What is it like to carry on the legacy of a five-time Grammy-winning singing group which has been around for more than 50 years?

Oliver Griffiths has been part of The Swingles for nine years, making the 36-year-old singer the second longest-serving member out of the group of seven.

Founded in Paris by American-born Ward Swingle in 1963, The Swingles are a renowned a cappella group who have toured around the world, appeared on television and film soundtracks, and created several music videos.

Mr Griffiths, who is the Tenor One for the group said: “Obviously we’re all super aware in the best possible way of the history of the group and how amazing it is to be so tied into that line of singers that goes back over 50 years.”

The Swingles will be performing at the London Jazz Festival this November alongside two other singing groups, in a three-part concert called The Voices of Jazz.

Mr Griffiths said that the group is very excited to be a part of the festival, and that the audience can expect a diverse range of music from them.

This includes a Billie Holliday song, where they sing ‘alongside’ the late singer with her lead vocal and The Swingles harmonising underneath.

They will also be performing arrangements of songs by Kurt Elling and Wayne Shorter.

Mr Griffiths said: “We’re singing our jazz heroes’ work basically, and then mixed amongst that will be other repertoire that is more diverse tonally as well.

“So you’ll get to hear a lot of different things but with a heavy leaning towards our personal jazz heroes, the vocalists that really inspired us.”

He acknowledged the influence of their late founder Ward, saying his innovation is a key part of the group’s DNA as they strive to constantly try new things in their music.

Mr Griffiths said new singers auditioning for the group must be able to bring their own unique musical style and character to the group, but must also sing one of Bach’s fugues in the iconic Swingles style.

This is what the group became famous for in the 60s and what they won Grammys for, so new members must fit into the group’s ensemble dynamic as much as they must bring what distinguishes them as a soloist.

Over the course of their history, The Swingles have toured to venues around the world, both big and small.

Mr Griffiths said: “The bulk of what we do is live performance. Touring is our bread and butter.”

Whilst he has been part of the group, he has played venues as big as the Scala in Milan and the London Palladium to venues as small as Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club.

Mr Griffiths admitted that whilst playing bigger venues is an amazing experience, smaller venues are great too.

He said: “It’s as exciting but in a completely different way. When you can see people, look them right in the eyes and sing right to them, it’s wonderful too.”

Mr Griffiths said one of his strangest performances was about seven or eight years ago, in which the group were asked to perform a flash mob in a square in Dubai, before they were taken away by gondolas.

However, the gondolas did not speed away as planned.

He said: “It took really rather a long time to leave, so we’ve done this flash mob and got in these boats and were meant to be whisked away and then that just didn’t really happen, so we sat there and waited for a while until they took us away.”

He added: “Some of those flash mobs were quite strange, but you can’t complain about going and singing in Dubai though can you?”

The Swingles have also appeared on TV and film soundtracks over the years, including Sex and the CityGrey’s Anatomy and Glee.

In 2017, the group performed a song for the end credits of Downsizing with Matt Damon, and Mr Griffiths described the experience as a very hectic but rewarding one.

He said: “We were on tour at the time and we were in Dublin, and we had until 3 o’clock in the afternoon free to get in the studio and record the whole thing and send it off to Hollywood to get the okay.

“Not very much after that it was released and it was there and we got to go to the premiere in Leicester Square.”

The song was co-written by Joanna Goldsmith-Eteson and Edward Randell from The Swingles, and the film score’s composer Rolfe Kent.

Mr Griffiths said: “It’s amazing and to be part of the writing of that was super cool because you feel extra connected to the product in that case.”

He also recognised the role film and TV like Pitch Perfect and Glee played in bringing a cappella music into the public eye.

He said: “For us it was a wonderful gateway into having people understand what we do and what the group does.”

He added that more and more people seem to be taking part in community singing and choirs as a result.

He said: “Ensemble singing is so amazing because it doesn’t work unless you listen to each other and it doesn’t work unless you give the people around you respect and it doesn’t work unless you want to connect to other people.

“I think those are all things that we desperately need and want in the world that we live in at the moment and I think this rise in people having access to singing and group singing is amazing.”

Catch The Swingles at The Voices of Jazz Concert on November 23 at 7:30pm, as part of the London Jazz Festival at St John’s Smith Square. More details can be found here

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