Singers produce fun in five-part harmony

A cappella: High Five's members love to share their music and have high hopes for success.

April 18, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

At first, no one paid much attention to the group of five when they erupted into song in the middle of Clyde's restaurant in Georgetown.

Conversations continued, and servers kept taking orders. But as the melody grew, diners began lifting their heads from their plates, poking one another and pointing - most with the same quizzical looks on their faces.

"We're not used to getting music in here," said Cherie Calvert of Kensington, "just martinis."

The colorful members of High Five, the night's impromptu entertainers, aren't used to being together without performing, either, regardless of where they are - they claim it's nearly impossible to refrain.

"You know that Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham?" asked Susan Dargusch, the group's second soprano. "Well, that's us: We'll sing in a box; we'll sing with a fox. We'll sing in a bar; we'll sing in a car."

And they don't wait for an invitation, singing whenever the mood strikes. But tonight, the a cappella jazz quintet has a planned (but unpaid) gig. The group is singing at the Howard County Central Library as part of its new monthly music program, Third Thursdays in the Cafe, and their aim is to wow with nothing but their voices.

"You can equate us with stuff like the Manhattan Transfer without a backup band," said bass Mike Kelly, whose North Laurel house is the quintet's home base. "We're not a band; we're a group. We don't use instruments."

What they do use are their vocal cords and considerable musical training, which spans barbershop quartet to classical, to produce notes that often resemble instrument sounds.

"If you close your eyes, there are so many sounds it sounds like instruments," said Dargusch, 37. "That's the fun thing for us: to try and become trombones or clarinets."

A cappella is defined as unaccompanied singing. Their voices are the instruments, and their range is surprising. When High Five really got going in Clyde's, they drew a fair-sized audience of admirers, including Calvert, who fell under the group's odd public relations spell and ended up buying their newly released first compact disc, Moondance. High Five always carries a cache of them just in case.

"We're bigger as a group than we are as individuals," said High Five's founder, tenor Joe Mannherz, who has sung with the Baltimore Symphony for the past quarter-century. "Together, we're bigger than the sun."

A cappella may be bigger, too.

"It seems to be on the rise," said John Fewer, an Elkridge-based representative for the international Contemporary A Cappella Society. "There's a huge collegiate community, and some of the more popular groups are doing a cappella and making it better known - `N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. The younger crowd is more familiar with it.

"The main problem is that a lot of folks don't necessarily know about it," said Fewer. "Most people think of it as barbershop. They don't realize it can cover everything else, too."

Like jazz - though Mannherz, 49, acknowledges High Five tends to use "jazz" as a catch-all label. They also sing ballads, Dixie and some rock, but in Georgetown they sang Mannherz's original arrangement of Van Morrison's "Moondance" mixed with Eddie Cooley and John Davenport's "Fever."

"Any song that's out there, there's probably an a cappella version," Fewer said. "We're talking straight off the radio, from [Guns N' Roses'] `Welcome to the Jungle' to [Coolio's] `Gangsta's Paradise.' But as far as breaking in and trying to go mainstream, a lot of producers and labels haven't warmed up to pure a cappella. We're hard pressed to get it on the radio."

One success story people are probably familiar with, if they're younger than 20 or have kids that age, is Rockapella. They've traveled the world performing and are huge in the a cappella community for a variety of songs, Fewer said. But to most people, they were the house-group on PBS' Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego from 1991 to 1996.

"When I grow up, I want to be just like them," said Kelly. "Not the same music - they do rock, we do jazz - but to reach the same goals they've reached. They're what every a cappella group wants to be when they grow up."

The members of High Five - which also includes Lori Dreyer (alto) and Janet Montrie (first soprano)-don't expect to be able to quit their day jobs anytime soon. The 18-month-old group did get a nod from the a cappella community last month when it placed third as the best group overall at CASA's Mid-Atlantic Harmony Sweepstakes. But for the most part, they're keeping their dreams grounded in reality.

"We just like singing," Kelly said. "We could sing in a basement, and we'd be happy."

High Five performs tonight at the central library's cafe, 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Information: 410-313-7800 or www.highfive

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