HomeConcert Review: West Side 5 at Columbia University’s Teachers College

Evan Feist's picture

Apologies for the delay in posting this review. The CASA site is in the midst of a re-design that is slowing down our processes.

West Side 5, a new classy jazz quintet made up of former VoxJazz (Harvard Universty) singers sang tonight (1/27/10) at Columbia University’s Teachers College.  They found each other again in New York about 6 months ago and started practicing after taking a combined 3 years off.  The group is made up of Lara Hirner (Soprano), Sara Wajnberg (Alto), John Shumway (Tenor), Eric Hughes (Baritone), and Will Fithian (Bass).

They cite their influences as the New York Voices, Manhattan Transfer, and The Real Group. I think this sells them short.  They are an elegant and stylish jazz combo who sing completely acoustically (no microphones), and it’s obvious why.  Their precise and stunning chordal blend would be lost through amplification and their tight tuning wouldn’t be as apparent; think a more serious Groove Society.  Beyond the precision of their runs, the wax and wane of their tempos really embody the spirit of the standards they perform.  Yet, as Ben Folds would say, they could use a bit more dynamics.  Their improv bridges are a testament to what a great group they are.  Even after taking 3 years off, just 6 months into this group, they dive head first in and out of head melodies, improving all the way home. 

I’m glad that West Side 5 is a very different group (recorded and live) than what I’m used to these days.  They are not an overtly produced band imitating instruments.  They are a vocal group through and through.  Besides the occasional mouth trumpet and high hat interspersed with the bass line, they produce vocal harmony.  Period.  It’s nice to hear a group who can survive and entertain as their vulnerable selves.  This group is the opposite of The House Jacks.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE The House Jacks, it’s just nice to hear singers not imitate anything for a bit.  The era of experimental vocal groups is upon us and in the midst of it, we have a classic-style group with all the sweet dissonant harmonies you could ask for.  West Side 5 is structured and based on close harmony, locomotive jazz lines, and blend.  Even on their recordings (which you can hear at http://westsidefive.tumblr.com), there are no effects, compression, auto-tune, or reverb. It is, from what I can hear, raw voices.  And they sound incredible.

The arrangements (mostly by baritone Eric Hughes) are beyond stunning. The voice leading is impeccable.  The melodic lines flow so seamlessly from one voice part to the next, giving each singer a chance to lead. The harmonies are voiced very close but with a flawless use of spacing in both phrasing and vocal parts.

These cats surely know what they’re doing and deserve much more attention than they’re getting.  I’ve heard their demos and videos and it’s very safe to say that they are the rare exception of a group that is worlds better live than recorded.

Unfortunately, this performance was on a Wednesday night at 6:30PM, coinciding with the largest volume of classes.  When they opened with The Real Group’s Chili Con Carne, the audience was made up of friends and family who came along for the ride.  For the record, I’ve heard this song performed by well over 20 groups and West Side 5 is far and away the best.

As they went through their set of jazz standards by such greats as Cole Porter, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Duke Ellington, people started to trickle in. Throughout the set, students and faculty walking by got entranced and drawn in.  Once they started their rendition of Lullaby of Birdland, you could tell that the buzz was starting to settle in.  The whole crowd (of about 20 at this point) was snappin’ and tappin’.  The same 5 people kept strolling by the atrium outside the library again and again, not committing to skipping class, but detouring on their way back yet again.  One of the highlights for me was Hughes arrangement of Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka.  People were stunned and you could feel the peaked eyebrows coming down the stairs.  Once the concert ended, the students quickly dispersed, on their way back to class after a very long “bathroom break”.

To hear more, go to http://westsidefive.tumblr.com/ AND www.myspace.com/westsidefive AND become a Facebook fan/friend AND follow them on Twitter

To book, chat with, or otherwise contact West Side 5, please email westsidefive@gmail.com

West Side 5 competes Saturday, April 10 in the mid-Atlantic regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes (http://www.harmony-sweepstakes.com/dc.html)

About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, teaching, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over eight years and has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is working towards his Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teacher's College.  He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir.  Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the business manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based out of Jersville Studios. He dabbles in all things musical and plays the piano, drums, percussion, trumpet, shofar, bass, and guitar.  Evan is currently building a collegiate mixed a cappella group in NYC (open to ALL students in the area)