Sarah Vaughan: Shulie-A-Bop

Sarah Vaughan had the jazz singer's perfect combination: a flexible voice and an acute harmonic sense. Naturally, she improvised every time she went on stage, but considering the length and breadth of her recording career, there aren’t many full-fledged scat solos on record. “Shulie-A-Bop”, which may have been created at the recording session, features Sarah and her working trio on a 16-bar minor blues. Other than a quote of "I Ain't Mad At You" and the introductions of the musicians, the performance is entirely wordless. Sarah gets most of the solo space and makes the best of it, displaying her fine way of developing ideas and inserting several bop melodic sequences. Sarah’s trio was one of the finest touring groups of its day, and each member of the trio takes a 16-bar solo here, and as noted, each is introduced by Sarah. Bop pioneer Roy Haynes is the best-known member of the group, but John Malachi had been an arranger and pianist for the Billy Eckstine bop band and Joe Benjamin would gain greater fame when he joined the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Sarah’s unique introduction of “Roy (tap, tap, tap) Haynes” was developed for this recording, and the drummer still uses it in performances with his own groups.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roy Eldridge & Dizzy Gillespie: Pretty-Eyed Baby

In an interview, Jon Hendricks asked Dizzy Gillespie to demonstrate the evolution of styles by singing a riff as Louis Armstrong would sing it, then as how Roy Eldridge would sing it, and finally how Dizzy would sing it. Dizzy replied with a simple rhythmic idea from Louis, an intense, agitated version for Roy and then an arhythmic flurry of fast notes for himself. Although Dizzy was joking around, he admitted that his example wasn’t too far from reality. The similarities and differences between Roy and Dizzy are better illustrated in “Pretty-Eyed Baby”, a light-hearted duet from Roy And Diz, which features both principals on trumpet and vocals. Although the recording is in mono, it’s very easy to tell the difference between the two players, as Eldridge plays a Harmon mute throughout and Dizzy plays in a cup mute. Further, each man’s scat singing style echoes their trumpet work: Roy with a pronounced rasp and powerful rhythm, Dizzy smoother with very complex rhythmic combinations. The trumpet solos that follow the scat are 8-bar exchanges (probably kept short as both trumpeters had played in their high registers for most of the date). The improvised 2-part vocal harmony on the coda doesn’t really work—I doubt they rehearsed the number before recording it—but the recording is an important historical document of two of the best trumpeters (and scat singers) in jazz history.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers: Dinah

Bing Crosby and the Mills Brothers enjoyed long careers in pop music, but they were all influenced by jazz in their early years. “Dinah” starts out like one of Crosby’s pop records, with Crosby singing the melody with minor variations over a small orchestra with strings. Then the tempo jumps up, there is a jazzy trumpet break, the Mills Brothers enter, and most of the orchestra is silent for the rest of the recording. John Mills sings a tuba part under the three-part harmony of his brothers (John also plays guitar for the rest of the side). Donald Mills takes a scat break to finish the chorus, then Crosby takes over with a scat solo of his own. While Crosby sings even eighth notes on top of the beat, he varies the line with sharp rhythmic emphasis. Trumpeter Frank Guarante accompanies Crosby when he goes back to the lyrics at the bridge, and then again in the first half of the next chorus, but the solo at the bridge which follows is not a trumpet, but a vocal impression by Harry Mills. The side comes to an exciting conclusion as the Mills Brothers riff like a high-powered big band behind Crosby.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Jelly Roll Morton: Scat Song

Scat singing was not born when Louis Armstrong dropped the sheet music during a recording of “Heebie Jeebies”. Although Armstrong perpetuated the myth, he well knew that scat had been around almost as long as jazz itself. Jelly Roll Morton may have been the first person to set the record straight, and in his recorded reminiscences for the Library of Congress, he credits Joe Simms, “an old comedian” from Vicksburg, Mississippi, as the first person to scat sing. Morton’s most interesting claim comes right before his charming demonstration: in its original use, scat was not used for extended solos, but merely as a unique introduction for a song. We may never know how much Simms and how much Morton there is in the 1938 re-creation heard here, but the simple syncopations, light New Orleans swing and delightful “scoodle-ee-doo” syllables give us a good idea of the origins of scat.

(The MP3 link above is not from the Anamule Dance CD, which only includes the musical demonstration. Instead, the linked recording is from Morton’s The Complete Library of Congress Recordings–also from Rounder—which includes the spoken introduction. The recording begins with the final section of the Morton composition “Anamule Dance” and segues into the discussion of scat at 2:35.)

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong (featuring Lonnie Johnson): Hotter Than That

Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings are fundamental documents in the history of American music. By emphasizing a featured soloist, rather than the ensemble band music of New Orleans, they served as a foundation for the entire superstructure of jazz to come. For this particular edition, the Hot Fives became in effect the Hot Six, thanks to the inspired addition of virtuoso jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In "Hotter Than That," Armstrong continues to develop his historic instrumental power and expressiveness. He also revives the scat singing (nonsense syllables delivered in a rhythmic vocal style) that he first put on record in the previous year's "Heebie Jeebies." Here he scats in a marvelous call-&-response dialogue with Johnson's guitar, which sometimes echoes—or saucily mimics—the scat line and sometimes complements or comments on it. As the distinguished music scholar and composer Gunther Schuller says in Early Jazz, "Lonnie Johnson's swinging, rhythmic backing and his remarkable two-bar exchanges with Armstrong are certainly one of the highlights of classic jazz." Special punch and poignancy come when the exchanges culminate in four dramatic stop-time effects, with an Armstrong wail followed by Johnson's perfectly attuned, punctuated guitar response. These two masters brought out the best in each other.

Johnny Dodds also contributes a scintillating clarinet solo, with a fine blues feel, evoking the original New Orleans jazz milieu, as does Kid Ory's classic tailgate trombone.

January 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sheila Jordan: Lady Be Good

Sheila Jordan, who is celebrating her 80th birthday on the day I am writing this review, frequently apologizes for her "senior moments" during the course of her live recording in Montreal Winter Sunshine. But there is more sunshine than winter in Jordan's music these days. Except for an occasional note-bending exercise that seems to hover precariously outside of consonance, her phrasing is supple and inventive; if anything she sings with more relaxation here than she did back in the day. Her version of "Lady Be Good" is a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who put an ineradicable stamp on this tune, but Jordan feels no compulsion to imitate the First Lady of Song. She takes Gershwin's warhorse at a very slow tempo—a real departure for this standard, which usually is played with a brisk, swinging pulse. Along the way, she tells about Ella, and throws in some bits of her own personal history. Mid-song she insists that she won't try to scat like Fitzgerald, but instead she scats like Sheila Jordan, and with such winsome charm that no one in the audience has any right to complain. This lady be great . . . and it is heartening to see her finally getting some of the honors (most recently a lifetime achievement award at an star-studded event at the Kennedy Center this past May) that have long been her due.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Giacomo Gates: Melodious Funk

The only thing missing in "Melodious Funk" is that obvious rhyme: Thelonious Monk. Or maybe a felonious punk in a commodious trunk. Or an odious skunk with a coyote's junk. But we get none of these (even though there is a bit of sly Monkish movement in the melody line). But Gates makes up for it with always stylish delivery, big voice and forceful scatting. I only wish saxophonist Kindred would lay back more when Gates scats, rather than offer an alternative solo in the background. Gates continues to impress with his convivial attitudes and the bohemian ambiance of his vocalizing. When I need hep replacement surgery, I am tracking down this singer, 'cause he's got some to spare.

February 24, 2008 · 5 comments

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Ella Fitzgerald: Smooth Sailing

Ella as one of the founders of rock 'n' roll? Not as crazy as it sounds after listening to this wordless 12-bar scat-and-riff feature from 1951. Since 1949 Ella had become a regular feature with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, effectively a touring jam session presenting some of the greatest musicians in jazz. Ella was the ipso facto star of the show, with her own prime spot as well as appearing at the climax of the show during the final jam session to swap choruses with instrumentalists such as Charlie Parker or Coleman Hawkins. Her effortless mastery of scat, sharpened and honed in such exacting circumstances, is apparent on “Smooth Sailing,” done without any rehearsal. A strong gospel-style backbeat gives the performance its swinging groove, with call-and-response patterns between voice and instruments. But listen to Ella’s free association scat, from which one phrase is lifted intact on Bill Haley’s huge hit “Rock Around the Clock,” and the final riff section, also used by Haley. Coincidence? Not really. “Smooth Sailing” was produced by Milt Gabler, who went on to work with Haley.

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Dianne Reeves: Nine

Dianne Reeves is undoubtedly one the most gifted singers among those who attained international status in the last decade of the 20th century. One of the most authentic, too, she can sing standards with a mastery and range that led many critics to compare her with the great Sarah Vaughan. But Miss Reeves is no imitator: she always gives utterly personal renditions of the classics, maybe because she also composes, as with this song inspired from her childhood memories. It catches the magical atmosphere of children’s fantasies – listen to the way Reeves’s warm voice scats on nursery rhymes’ melodies towards the end of the song – and never fails to swing, thanks to a strongly empathic rhythm section. This Reeves original fully deserves to become a classic.

January 14, 2008 · 0 comments

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Louis Armstrong: Heebie Jeebies


     Louis Armstrong 
Photo by Herb Snitzer

“Heebie Jeebies” is a typically rambling Hot Five performance with pedantic ensemble, some wrong notes and chord problems. So why is it a must for any introductory course on jazz and why the high ranking here? The answer is: Armstrong’s pioneering scat singing during his second vocal chorus, of course. But Armstrong's first chorus is equally striking -- he sings with such naturalness that this alone would ensure the disk's reputation as a timeless performance. He sails from one chorus into the other and it is all of a piece; the scat-singing is just one more delightful ingredient. He is accompanied solely by St. Cyr’s rhythmic six-string banjo and without competing chords the performance really takes off. Incidentally, the first known scat singing on record was done by vaudevillian Gene Greene in 1909.

November 10, 2007 · 0 comments

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Ella Fitzgerald: How High the Moon

This 1940 Broadway show tune became so ubiquitous in jazz that, just before Christmas 1947, Ella Fitzgerald recorded it with a small combo; the next day, June Christy covered it with Stan Kenton's big band; and Anita O'Day quickly completed the trifecta. Yet even after Les Paul & Mary Ford's 1951 #1 pop hit, "How High the Moon" was for jazz fans from 1948 onward most closely identified with Fitzgerald. Effortlessly adopting bebop's musical vocabulary to her Swing Era sweetness, Ella interpolates Charlie Parker's 1946 "Ornithology" (based on the same chord changes) and Ella-vates scat singing from novelty to high art.

November 02, 2007 · 0 comments

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