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Vocalese 101: An Overview of the Underappreciated Vocal Jazz Movement

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One of the many wonderful aspects of jazz is the sheer number of its subgenres: swing, bop, fusion, and big band, just to name a few. One area that too infrequently draws attention is vocalese, a particular jazz form that is difficult to master, but absolutely astounding when done well.

Often confused with scat, vocalese involves taking an instrumental solo off a well-known jazz recording (usually a trumpet or saxophone), then writing lyrics that mimic the sound of that solo. While the lyrics can be at times charmingly absurd, their main purpose is to provide the singer with the opportunity to duplicate that solo through his or her voice. When hearing vocalese without comparing it to the original recording, the vocal style can seem odd—the voice may crack, squeal, or quickly change tempo. These techniques exactly replicate the original solo through words, rhythm, and tone. Scat usually involves only nonsense syllables that are meant to compliment the existing instrumentation, although occasionally some singers may use syllables to imitate an instrument's sound. Unlike scat, vocalese does not involve improvisation but carefully rehearsed performances.

According to the Jon Hendricks' page, vocalese lyrics frequently fall into two general categories: storytelling and tribute. The storytelling may describe a love affair from a specific perspective, while the tribute involves lyrics paying homage to the writer and/or performer of the original tune. While the genre's history remains murky, the vocalese movement's earliest pioneer is Eddie Jefferson; All Music Guide's Scott Yanow stated that Jefferson "did not have a great voice," but his ability to write clever lyrics that exactly duplicated famous jazz solos cannot be overlooked. After hearing James Moody's saxophone solo from "In the Mood for Love," Jefferson wrote lyrics imitating Moody's work, retitling it "Moody's Mood for Love." His new version became a hit in 1952. However, another vocalese pioneer, King Pleasure, recorded his interpretation of Jefferson's tune and released it earlier that same year. Heavily influenced by Jefferson, King Pleasure gained a reputation for his replicas of saxophone solos as well as his incorporation of scat along with lyrics. In addition to the aforementioned "Moody's Mood for Love," he scored an additional hit with a Jefferson cover, "Parker's Mood," an ode to legendary sax player Charlie Parker.

Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross

But vocalese's best-known artists may be Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, a trio that greatly expanded the genre. While Jefferson and Pleasure sang alone, this group became a virtual band, singing various instrument parts for a fuller, more complex sound. As All About Jazz states, they are still regarded as "the vocalese supergroup of all time." Their classic renditions of "Moanin'" and "Twisted," along with Hendricks's abstractly poetic lyrics, are still regarded as the best of vocalese as well as stellar examples of vocal jazz. After a string of hits in the '50s and early '60s, Hendricks embarked on a solo career in 1964, eventually collaborating on another landmark jazz recording: The Manhattan Transfer's aptly-titled album, Vocalese.

Heavily influenced by Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross, The Manhattan Transfer first experimented with vocalese on 1979's "Birdland," their vocal interpretation of the Weather Report instrumental. That track earned them a Grammy for Best Jazz Fusion Performance and has since become their best-known song. But in 1985 they returned to their vocalese roots, collaborating with Hendricks to produce a remarkable album. The result, Vocalese, featured incredibly complicated renditions of "Another Night in Tunisia," "Airegin," and "Sing Joy Spring," among other jazz standards. Hearing vocalese master Hendricks perform with these relatively "young lions" in the vocal jazz scene was a thrill for fans of the genre.

Unfortunately, few artists have carried on the vocalese torch. Chicago-based Kurt Elling and New York's Judi Silvano are among the few still active in the genre. But key recordings keep the movement alive, and will ideally inspire future generations of jazz artists to further develop the difficult—yet ultimately rewarding—art of vocalese.

The following list identifies essential vocalese recordings:

"Moody's Mood for Love," King Pleasure (Moody's Mood for Love, 1993 compilation)

Eddie Jefferson's lyrics, penned to imitate James Moody's tenor sax solo on 1949's "In the Mood for Love," have stood the test of time. Not surprisingly, Pleasure scored a 1952 hit with his version of this classic (primarily known for the beginning lyrics "There I go, there I go, there I go, there I go…"). Half blues, half jazz, the song benefits from Pleasure's deceptively simple performance.

"So What?" and "Body and Soul," Eddie Jefferson (The Jazz Singer, 1959)

While Jefferson may not have been as smooth a singer as later vocalese artists, his status as a pioneer cannot be overstated. Eddie Jefferson"So What?" finds Jefferson remaking the Miles Davis Kind of Blue tune, and in addition to skillfully recreating Davis's trumpet, he sings funny yet oddly touching lyrics. Basically a tribute to Davis, Jefferson's lyrics essentially defend the jazz legend's eccentricities, such as his clothes and his typically aloof manner. The man is cool and simply ahead of his time, Jefferson argues, and does so convincingly in his charming take on the song. "Body and Soul," a vocalese remake of the standard, became a big hit, mainly due to Jefferson's beautiful rendition of Coleman Hawkins's solo.

"One O'Clock Jump," Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross (Sing A Song of Basie, 1958)

This incredible Count Basie tribute also marked the debut of Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross. According to the All Music Guide, the trio initially had a vocal chorus compliment their singing, but "the general incompetence of the studio voices led them to multi-track their own voices." The vocally lush result, along with their uncanny imitations of Basie's piano, announced the arrival of a truly original jazz group. For comparison, Basie's original recording can be located easily on compilations such as The Complete Decca Recordings.

"Cloudburst," Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross (The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1960)

My personal favorite vocalese track of all time, this reworking of a Jimmy Harris jam features the trio at their best. The song changes tempos frequently, which the singers handle with ease. In addition, the lyrics are whimsical but perfectly replicate the original instruments' solos. Finally, just how did these three sing the lyrics at rapid-fire speed yet still make it look easy? Listen to this track and prepare to be blown away.

"Twisted," Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross (The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1960)

Not only does Annie Ross give a masterful vocal performance, the lyrics are truly hilarious. Written from the perspective of a woman whose analyst insists that she's insane, Hendricks and Dave Lambert provide a backing chorus that wryly comments on her statements. At one point Ross sings that she refuses to ride on the top level of a double decker bus because no driver sits there. "No driver on the top? This chick is twisted. What's the matter with her?" Hendricks and Lambert sputter. The hysterically loopy lyrics, along with sophisticated vocalese technique, all add up to an absolutely essential jazz tune.

"Four Brothers," The Manhattan Transfer (Pastiche, 1977)

Penned by tenor saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre and performed by the Woody Herman Orchestra, this 1947 tune originally featured Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Serge Chaloff comprising a symphony of saxes. Each had extended solos, then would seamlessly blend together. As All About Jazz puts it, "The saxophonists sounded as one together but went their merry way when playing alone." Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross wrote a vocalese arrangement back in the '50s, and The Manhattan Transfer based their cover on that version. Listening to members Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul, and then-member Laurel Massé's voices replicating the tenor sax licks, alternately harmonizing with one another, is simply astounding. For a great live version (with current member Cheryl Bentyne), pick up their 1987 CD, Manhattan Transfer Live.

"Birdland," The Manhattan Transfer (Extensions, 1979)

The song that put the Manhattan Transfer on the map, "Birdland" was originally written by Joe Zawinul and performed The Manhattan Transferby the Weather Report. To fully appreciate the difficult vocalese technique, listen to the original version on that group's Heavy Weather album, then compare it with the Manhattan Transfer track. Each member perfectly replicates the solos, with the new lyrics paying homage to Charlie Parker and other bop legends.

"Another Night in Tunisia," The Manhattan Transfer (Vocalese, 1985)

Talk about a vocalese bonanza: None other than Hendricks and sometime vocalese artist Bobby McFerrin guest on this track, singing Hendrick's arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie classic. Unlike other vocalese tracks, though, this features a form of scatting instead of actual lyrics, but the syllables deliberately mimic the instruments. Hendricks's imitation of Gillespie's sax remains awe-inspiring. Gillespie's original "Night in Tunisia" can be found on the compilation The Dizzy's Diamonds: The Best of the Verve Years.

"Sing Joy Spring," The Manhattan Transfer (Vocalese, 1985)

Trumpeter Clifford Brown originally wrote this unique song (his untimely death at age 25 was a tragedy for the jazz world), and Hendricks penned new lyrics to ape his trumpet solos. Listening to the dizzingly complex and rapid lyrics reveals the advanced vocalese skills the Manhattan Transfer possess. Find the original version on The Best of Clifford Brown, then compare it with the Vocalese version to gain full appreciation of their technique and Hendricks's songwriting ability. The quartet also performed an equally impressive live rendition on 1987's Manhattan Transfer Live.

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