The Golden Gate Quartet
Music Is ? ? ?
Cristal Groupe 2019
By Bob Marovich
From the open-ended question that is the title of their new album to the opening track, “Change,” it’s clear that the Golden Gate Quartet is preparing the listener for a different experience.
And that’s what the listener gets on the baker’s dozen of selections that comprise Music Is ? ? ?—from traditional quartet to smooth soul/R&B to vocal group harmony.
Organized in 1934, the Golden Gate Quartet helped popularize the rhythmic jubilee quartet sound through its many recordings, national radio broadcasts, appearances in films, and participation in John Hammond’s historic 1938 From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. Finding enthusiastic audiences for their singing in Europe during the 1950s, the Gates moved to Paris in 1959 and have made the Continent their home base ever since.
Today, the group consists of Frank Davis (first tenor), Michael Robinson (second tenor), Thierry Francois (bass), and Paul Brembly (baritone and group leader). These four more than capable singers maintain the quartet’s tradition well.
Music Is ? ? ? contains sacred and pop offerings, the latter represented by “Blue Suede Shoes” with background doo wops, the Coasters-like “Cadillac Jack,” and a salute to R&B and rock ‘n roll pioneers on “We Remember Friends.” For “The End of My Journey” (aka Lucie Campbell’s “He’ll Understand, He’ll Say Well Done”), the group doo-wops like the mid-1950s Soul Stirrers, but without Sam Cooke.
The sonic change, at least for those who have not heard the quartet in recent years, is the group’s surprising incorporation of MOR quiet storm R&B on “Jesus He Loves You” and the love song “Place in My Heart.”
Smooth soul and R&B groups are ubiquitous but practitioners of the jubilee style that the Gates popularized are not. That’s why, changes notwithstanding, the album’s standout tracks are “Working on the Building,” “Run On,” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Not only do they represent the trademark Golden Gate Quartet sound, but they are distinctive because very few groups sing this way anymore. Like the work of the similarly reconstituted Fairfield Four, these “jump spirituals” are a breath of fresh air for their vocal strength, purity of technique, and timelessness.
Call me old fashioned, but I wish there were more jubilee selections on Music Is ? ? ?.
Three of Five Stars
Picks: “Working on the Building,” “Didn’t It Rain”