Jul 14, 2009
Sing a Song of Basie

Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, shown above, were practitioners of vocalese. This is a style of singing in jazz that adds lyrics to instrumental pieces. This is related to, but different than scat singing. In scat the singer uses nonsense syllables to accompany the music. In vocalese the singer supplies lyrics to the formerly non-vocal piece. In this album the singers supply lyrics to the various instruments.

Here’s an example, from the song Everyday, of the lyrics that shows the interplay of the brass and the reeds. The human voice substitutes for the instruments. The song was created by recording the voices, and then overdubbing them. This multitracking is now fairly easy to do, but in 1958 it required several months of work to produce a decent result.

John F. Szwed in Jazz 101—A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz says of vocalese:

Some jazz fans and critics have derided vocalese as a distraction from jazz (the introduction of words into an existing instrumental realm is seen as grounding an otherwise "pure" form in prosaic, unimprovised meaning). But the great users of vocalese—Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure, and Jon Hendricks—are poets as well as singers, adding new dimensions of meaning to wordless solos, and making them into songs. They bring something new to the solos they imitate, introducing a narrative flow which often clarifies or even strengthens the instrumental originals. Hendricks's singing (and the lyrics he wrote for the songs) on Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's Sing a Song of Basie punches up the rhythmic impact of the various tenor saxophonists he is imitating. By the ease with which they add words to instrumental improvisations, vocalese poets remind us that the jazz musicians they are imitating were also great songwriters.” (298-9).

Sing a Song of Basie launched Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross as a group that lasted until the early ‘60s. Ross left the group in 1962, and Hendricks died while changing a tire in 1966. Perhaps my favorite song, and one that Ross recorded before joining the group, is Twisted, which can be found on The Best of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. (Sadly, the compilation album has been discontinued, so I’m not doing the Amazon link to the used CDs.)