Volition & Vocalese

Nathan Holaway By

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For those that do not understand what "vocalese jazz is, it is when a jazz vocalist takes a jazz composition or an important jazz solo from the vast jazz repertoire, and they write words to perform to it. Vocalese jazz is truly an underrated art form. It requires real thought and attention. Granted, it's not for everybody, but when performed, it's an amazing testament to jazz. Unfortunately, there is not a plethora of jazz vocalese artists, nor is there a great deal of focus on vocalese jazz. Jazz has been around for roughly 100 years. Vocalese jazz has been around for roughly 50 years. But, in those 50 years, some have emerged and still shine brightly. According to Will Friedwald in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, "...it may be the last thing to happen to the development of jazz singing that could be called a 'movement'. Below are ten extraordinary examples of the vocalese movement. (Here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go...)

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross: Everybody's Boppin' (Columbia/Sony)
This is the vocalese supergroup of all time. Comprised of David Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross, they brought a new sense and vitality to music that made everyone's ears perk up. On Everybody's Boppin', you can find Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross placing words to jazz classics such as Art Blakey's "Moanin' written by Bobby Timmons. Wardell Gray's "Twisted gets a brilliant vocal treatment by Annie Ross, along with Harry "Sweets Edison's "Centerpiece, Cannonball Adderley's "Sermonette, and Duke Ellington's "Cottontail. This is a great place to start if you want to get introduced to classic vocalese jazz.
Eddie Jefferson: The Jazz Singer (Evidence)
Jefferson is probably the man that started the entire vocalese movement. Some of the earliest examples of vocalese can be found as far back as Bee Palmer and Marion Harris placing words to some Bix Beiderbecke sides such as "Singin' the Blues, but it was Jefferson that started an entire movement. Well, Jefferson and an incredible solo by James Moody to "I'm in the Mood for Love. It's one thing to compliment as soloist and say that his solo was "lyrical. It's an entirely different thing to actually write lyrics to that solo. That's what Eddie Jefferson did, and "Moody's Mood for Love was born. On The Jazz Singer, Jefferson gives a sparkling rendition of this song as well as singing lyrics to Miles Davis' "So What, Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time, Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie, Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In, and other jazz standards such as "Body and Soul, "Night Train, and "These Foolish Things. Highly recommended.
Bob Dorough: Devil May Care (Bethlehem Archives/Avenue Jazz/Rhino)
If you have ever caught an episode of Schoolhouse Rock, then you already know Bob Dorough's voice. But, that's hardly his "mark in the jazz world. He's a very gifted singer, with that certain spry spirit that commands you to smile. Dorough has a very personal and unique voice that no one can imitate. Devil May Care is his debut album from 1956 and the lyrics he penned to Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite are phenomenal. He also takes a few liberties on this recording with Dizzy Gillespie's "Ow, Hoagy Carmichael's "Baltimore Oriole, and standards such as "Old Devil Moon, "Devil May Care, "Polka Dots and Moonbeams, "It Could Happen to You, and "Midnight Sun. The really surprising tune on this album is Duke Ellington's rarely recorded "I Don't Mind. A living legend, Dorough deserves to be recognized and this is a terrific place to start.
King Pleasure: Golden Days (OJC)
King Pleasure was in the same boat as Eddie Jefferson, and they each have phenomenal versions of "Moody's Mood for Love. King Pleasure had a very defined, smooth voice, and when he sang bop vocalese, it was like melting butter. On Golden Days you can hear Pleasure sing not only "Moody's Mood for Love, but also "New Symphony Sid based on Lester Young's "Jumpin' with Symphony Sid, "All of Me from which he penned lyrics to Illinois Jacquet's solo, and "Tomorrow is Another Day which listeners may know better as "Dear Old Stockholm. Also included is "Parker's Mood in which Pleasure wrote lyrics not only based on Parker's solo, but on Parker's life. This can also be heard at the end of Clint Eastwood's film BIRD.
Jon Hendricks: Freddie Freeloader (Denon)
Jon Hendricks is so important to this brand of music, that he deserves to be mentioned twice. He is the man that the vocalese torch was passed on to from Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure. On Freddie Freeloader you can hear Hendricks wail on versions of "Jumpin' at the Woodside, "Freddie Freeloader, "Stardust, Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar, Thelonious Monk's "Trinkle Tinkle and "Listen to Monk (Rhythm-a-Ning), as well as a vocal rendition of Benny Goodman's big band arrangement of "Sing, Sing, Sing. Outstanding!
Mark Murphy: Jazz Standards (32 Jazz)
Murphy is one of those vocalists you either love or hate. Either way, no one can deny his contributions to the vocalese art form. He has on this double disc album, stellar takes on untimely jazz standards such as Coltrane's "Naima, Hancock's "Maiden Voyage, Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debby, Lee Morgan's "Ceora, and Sonny Rollins' "Doxy, and that's just on the first disc alone! The second disc has no repeats, except for Murphy repeating his outstanding virtuosity on takes of "Along Came Betty, "I Remember Clifford, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat with lyrics provided by Joni Mitchell, before closing with a vocal tribute to Charlie Parker. If you dig Mark Murphy, you'll dig this disc.
Jackie Ryan: Passion Flower (Openart)
Jackie Ryan has a wonderful voice. But, on her album Passion Flower, she also has a wonderful way with her pen. This is evident because she decided to take a song by the great tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson called "The Kicker and write lyrics to it, and did she ever! Ms. Ryan is one of the new emerging singers in the jazz idiom that deserves wider recognition. Besides the unbelievable take on Henderson's "The Kicker, you can hear Ms. Ryan deliver her stylistic stamp on such classics as "Mood Indigo, "Lullabye of the Leaves, "Some Other Spring, and "Serenade in Blue. Keep an eye on Jackie Ryan, because she'll continue to emerge and surprise.
Lorraine Feather: Such Sweet Thunder: Music of the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Sanctuary)
Lorraine Feather, the daughter of the late Leonard Feather, and the goddaughter to Billie Holiday, could try to ride on her name alone. But she doesn't need to for any reason. Lorraine Feather is by far her own artist and needs no coattails to ride on. She is a sublime songstress whose pen is as mighty as her voice. On Such Sweet Thunder, she takes some of the rarer numbers Ellington recorded and places her own brand upon them. Out of all the beautiful takes, her renditions of "September Rain (Chelsea Bridge), "Backwater Town (Suburban Beauty), "Imaginary Guy (Dancers in Love), and "Rhythm Go 'Way (Such Sweet Thunder) will have your feet tappin' and your fingers snappin' (on 2 and 4 of course, because if one snaps on the beat it is considered aggressive). The most glorious two tracks are her take on Ellington's "Sugar Rum Cherry which he took from the classical composer Tchaikovsky ("Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy ), that she calls "Can I Call You Sugar? as well as her take on a tune her father wrote entitled "Mighty Like the Blues which Ellington recorded in 1938. After hearing this disc, you will love Lorraine Feather madly!
Giacomo Gates: Centerpiece (Origin)
You wanna talk about hipness? You wanna talk about smooth and groovy? You wanna talk about one-of-a-kind? Then you wanna talk about Giacomo Gates. This cat is definitely where it is at! He is part of the new wave of vocalese jazz artists, and he is really pushing the envelope. Not only does he write lyrics to jazz compositions, and sing important jazz solos, he also scats, and can use his voice to improvise while sounding like a trombone or drum set. On Centerpiece you can find Gates swingin' on tunes like "Summertime, Harry "Sweets Edison's "Centerpiece, "How High the Moon / Ornithology, "All of Me where he quotes King Pleasure's lyric to Illinois Jacquet's solo, "I Got the Blues (Lester Leaps In), and Miles Davis' "Milestones. Trust me, all you'll need is one listen to this disc, and you'll be instantly addicted to Gates' low and smoky vocals that only he can deliver. Wow!
Kurt Elling: Live in Chicago (Blue Note)
Elling is probably one of the best examples we have in today's jazz vocalese movement. All of his albums strike a certain chord in your heart. He too, is constantly pushing the envelope in terms of vocalese styles. Instead of staying with typical fashion and writing lyrics about love and lost loves, he is constantly exploring and bringing topics like religion, humanity, and overall existence into his lyrics. The result is phenomenal, and will quickly escalate Elling into the annals of jazz history. On Live in Chicago, you can hear the superlative singer on the Russell Ferrante's "Downtown performed by the Yellowjackets, as well as his lyrics on "Night Dream taken from Wayne Shorter's "Night Dreamer. Smattered throughout are lyrical nods from the great poet Pablo Neruda, a cover of a Police song ("Oh My God ), and towards the end of the disc you can hear the vocalese torch being passed from Jon Hendricks to Kurt Elling. Hendricks appears with Elling on the tracks "Don't Get Scared (a signature King Pleasure tune) and the blues tune "Goin' to Chicago. As the torch had been passed from Jefferson and Pleasure on to Hendricks, it's almost as if he's passed it on to Kurt Elling. It would be a wise choice, because Elling is the face of future vocalese jazz. Vocalese artists have always raised the bar as far as their art is concerned, but Elling has raised it higher, and will probably continue to do so in the future.

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