Rare Silk – Jazz Vocal Group

Back in the early 90s I was perusing the vinyl collection at our local library and found an apparently unplayed album called American Eyes by a group called Rare Silk, a jazz vocal quartet backed by bass, percussion, and keyboards and other soloists. I played it repeatedly and became hooked on the sound – to me unique and eclectic.

Rare Silk was founded as a female vocal jazz trio in Boulder CO in 1978 by local jazz vocalists Marguerite Juenemann, Gaile Gillaspie, and Marylynn Gillaspie. Benny Goodman in a 1980 interview claims to have ‘discovered’ them. Whatever the story, they opened for the 71 year old Goodman and his septet in a Boulder concert and toured for a while, appearing with Goodman at Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall (aired on PBS), Aurex Jazz Festival in Tokyo, Chicago Jazz Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival at Hollywood Bowl, a USO tour of the Far East, and possibly others. By 1982 they had added a fourth member Todd Buffa, who was to influence their artistic direction. This mixed quartet and backing three piece band performed at the Breckenridge Jazz Picnic in 1982 and the next year entered the studio to record their first album in 1983, New Weave. It was nominated for a Grammy in 1984 as both best new jazz vocal group and best jazz vocal arrangement. The recording augmented the seven person core group with outstanding session musicians Bruce Forman, Gary Bartz, Ronnie Cuber, Larry Feldman, Dave Charles, Michael Brecker, and Randy Brecker.

I discovered the group had already disbanded by 1988. American Eyes (1985, TBA/PAJ) was the second of their three albums. I made a cassette tape of it (DBX noise reduction) so I could continue listening to it while I searched out the album, which I eventually found on the used market after it went out of print (O-O-P). I kept the tape also, eventually copying it to DAT tape and finally into iTunes. I eventually also found the other two on the used vinyl market, New Weave (1983, Polygram) and Black and Blue (1986, TBA/PAJ). I have since digitized them as well. There are also O-O-P CD versions of these albums on the market, commanding prices often exceeding $100. My vinyl rips are good enough for me, but I did recently discover online a person who owned the New Weave CD, and he sent me the flac files. They replace my vinyl rip in iTunes.

Ms. Juenemann left the group after 1983 and they added Barbara Reeves and still toured as a vocal quartet. In 1985 this quartet went back to the studio to create American Eyes, after which Ms. Reeves also left. A year later, the Ms. Gillaspie duo and Mr. Buffa recorded their final album. I have read that currently Marylynn Gillaspie is a noted protrait photographer in Denver, Ms. Juenemann is affiliated with the Colorado Conservatory for Jazz Arts, and Mr. Buffa teaches at UNC. Like almost all musical groups that have ever reached for the stars, they each are still grounded in their day jobs. One can also see evidence of the bane of any group, keeping it together under strain of artistic differences and conflicts between the various personal goals and personalities.

Of the albums, the first, New Weave, was the culmination of their original, somewhat straight-ahead style. It consisted of sophisticated arrangements of jazz standards. The middle album, American Eyes, was more original, darker and edgier, more alternative, developing the unique jazz artistic vision of the group under Todd Buffa’s lead. The group had switched from Polygram to the TBA subsidiary of the Palo Alto Jazz label, possibly necessary to accommodate the non-mainstream direction the group was taking into electronica-tinged arrangements of original tunes by Todd Buffa. The final album was in effect a ‘B’ side to American Eyes, with Buffa’s musical offerings getting heavy into synthesizers and losing a little appeal to my ears. The one cover tune, Felix Cavaliere’s How Can I Be Sure?, did not move me as much as had their earlier standards. But based on the first two albums, Rare Silk has achieved minor cult status. They reportedly did a reunion concert in 1996, but I have found no record of it. Perhaps some day a DVD may surface.

Wanting to see how they performed live, I searched out some You Tube videos from the 1980 Aurex Festival and 1982 Breckenridge Festival. They seemed to have a lot of fun and to really feel the music. These musicians reached a high level of exposure and quality, bettering almost all startup musical groups that never quite get over the first hill or two. Including the You Tube audio, I now have 2.5 hours of their recorded music in iTunes and still enjoy it thoroughly. Every song they recorded has become my favorite version.

I number among the fans who wanted more of their original direction, but yet I am happy with their brief legacy, which took me in a new appreciation direction. Many of us who have come to appreciate their talent were not even aware of their existence until they were no more.They went into alternative versions of jazz at a critical time when jazz was dying as a dynamic art form of mass appeal; accessible pop/dance was the true path to commercial music success. Perhaps if Rare Silk had perservered into the age of the Internet, they might have found their true audience. And in the end, they perhaps needed more musical creativity than Todd Buffa could generate by himself in order to sustain their arc.

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