Jazz harmonizers the Pfister Sisters have existed long enough to be considered a tradition, singing with everyone from the Neville Brothers to Jimmy Buffett to Linda Ronstadt. They sang on the wing of a plane with their hero Maxene Andrews of the swinging Andrews Sisters, and more recently were featured on the HBO series Treme, singing “Shame, Shame, Shame” with the show’s Davis McAlary. Their albums have tackled genres from cabaret to country. But since 1979, the Pfister Sisters (who aren’t really related) have become world renowned primarily for replicating beautifully complex classics by the famous singing Boswell Sisters.
Which is no easy task. “It’s musicians’ music, very complex and actually weird,” says sister Yvette Voelker. “It requires a huge time investment to learn those songs. Which is why there aren’t many jazz harmony vocalists in the world now, and no one else in the city of New Orleans.”
Normally, because of budgetary constraints, the Pfisters’ performances consist of just the three ladies—Voelker, plus founder Holley Bendtsen, and “new girl” Debbie Davis, who joined the Pfisters in 1999 and graced February’s OffBeat cover—plus their piano player Amasa Miller. But for French Quarter Fest they’ll bring along a big band. “This is a great chance to get to really recreate some of the wilder Boswell songs,” beams Voelker. “They were known for these small, nimble jazz combos, but also big groups where each person played one drum and whatnot, and they specialized in an anarchy that was nonetheless very well-arranged.”
Though performing cover tunes, the Pfisters find more than enough room within the Boswells’ amazing songs to experiment. “I am very impressed with the fact that after 30 years of doing this, I am not tired of it at all,” Voelker says. “The Boswells were in their teens during Louis Armstrong’s heyday, so they were influenced by the joyful noise of jazz. They applied jazz concepts, harmonizing their three voices like the average band would with three horns, so while it’s pretty tightly arranged, it was also set up to always go somewhere new. And we’ve been doing it long enough that when someone wanders off somewhere, we all have a fun time following them!”
At French Quarter Fest: Sunday, April 10, 12:30 – 1:45 p.m. WWL-TV Jackson Square Stage.