Jazz Vocalese Classics

Vocalese is the art of jazz vocal improvisation over famous instrumental melodies, which are often in the bebop style. We’ll check out some terrific vocalese tracks paired with their original instrumental versions on this week’s show.

We begin with tenor saxophonist Gene “Jug” Ammons’s song “Hittin’ the Jug,” followed by King Pleasure (b. Clarence Beeks) and his vocalese version called “Swan Blues.” Listen to how King Pleasure follows the melody and improvisation of the famous tenor player. “Swan Blues” traces the end of a love affair, and was once the theme song of a KBCA DJ, which he (obviously) featured at end of his shift. Tommy Bee? Tolley Strode? Anybody out there know?  

We next hear Herbie Hancock’s “Empty Pockets” from his first album Takin’ Off (1962). The young French singer Camille Bertault then covers this song in vocalese. Berthault is a true vocal phenomenon. I first heard her sing Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” in a video recorded informally inside her apartment. I was blown away. Berthauld just released a new album in Europe last month.

Wardell Gray, an L.A. tenor saxaphonist who gigged on Central Avenue in the 1940’s with Dexter Gordon, Hampton Hawes, and others, next plays his song “Twisted.” We follow it with the better-known vocalese version by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Annie Ross penned the lyrics one night on a visit to Los Angeles from her native England. Talk about talent.  

We follow with another Wardell Gray classic, “Jackie,” then the vocalese version from Janis Siegel (of The Manhattan Transfer) from her first solo album, Experiment in White. The song was written by pianist Hampton Hawes, made famous by Wardell Gray, and even more famous with Annie Ross’s lyrics and vocal version. “Coca-Cola” rhyming with “Gorgonzola.” Who can argue with that?

Perhaps the greatest of all vocalese artists, Jon Hendricks passed away in 2016 at the ripe old age of 96. While I didn't get a chance to include it this week, I highly recommend his version of the Miles Davis song “Freddie Freeloader,” where Hendricks stretches his vocalese artistry out to nine entire minutes. The Manhattan Transfer’s album Vocalese is also a must-listen, featuring Jon Hendricks, Bobby McFerrin, and the always-wonderful Transfer quartet of Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne, and Janis Siegel.

Finally, Kurt Elling recorded two stunning vocalese versions of John Coltrane’s song “Resolution” from the saxophonist’s epochal quartet A LOVE SUPREME on two different albums, Man in the Air and a big band version with saxophonist Bob Mintzer on Old School: New Lessons. Both versions are a tour de force, especially with the big band. Kurt Elling came out of the Yale Divinity School, so he has a special affinity for the spiritual side of music. I think his version of the Coltrane song demonstrates that perfectly. Check out Elling performing the song with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in this video.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 1/5/18

  1. Gene Ammons / "Hittin' The Jug" / Boss Tenor/ Concord Records
  2. King Pleasure / "Swan Blues" / Moody's Mood For Love / Blue Note
  3. Herbie Hancock / "Empty Pockets" / Takin' Off / Blue Note
  4. Camille Bertault / "Quoi De Plus Anodin" (Empty Pockets) / En Vie / Sunnyside
  5. Wardell Gray / "Twisted" / The Wardell Gray Story / Proper Box
  6. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross / "Twisted" / The Best of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross / Pacific Jazz/Rhino
  7. Wardell Gray / "Jackie" / The Wardell Gray Story / Proper Box
  8. Janis Siegel / "Jackie" / Experiment In White / Atlantic/Rhino/Elektra





Tom Schnabel