While she was plagued by poor health in her final years, Carmen McRae produced several fine recordings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Carmen Sings Monk” was one of her best recordings and it included lyricized versions of Thelonious Monk’s compositions (but not his solos). Some of the tunes were included in live and studio versions, and this live version of “In Walked Bud” featured Monk’s tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse in one of his final performances. The words were originally written by Jon Hendricks on short notice for a recording session with Monk. Hendricks describes a mythic jam session with Dizzy Gillespie, Don Byas, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach, Monk and of course, Bud Powell. McRae’s performance begins as she scats the melody, followed by a full chorus of Hendricks’ words. Rouse takes the first solo, followed by Mraz and Willis, each of whom starts his solo with a quote, Mraz citing the song’s harmonic base (“Blue Skies”) and Willis acknowledging the Basie standard “Topsy”. McRae continues the parade of quotes with a phrase from “Louise” then goes into a short scat solo where she develops a small motive into a longer idea, then takes the end of the long idea and develops it into another phrase. When she goes back to the lyrics, she nearly stretches the song’s syncopations to their breaking point before bringing it back into sync with the band.
In the mid-'70s, Eddie Jefferson was starting to get overdue recognition as "the Godfather of Vocalese," and his fame continued to rise until he was murdered outside a Detroit nightclub in 1979. The Main Man
was one of Jefferson's finest albums, featuring definitive versions of classics like "Jeannine" and "Moody's Mood For Love." "Summertime" is unusual in Jefferson's repertoire in that it does not appear to stem from an instrumental solo; rather, it is Jefferson's loose interpretation of the Gershwin standard. Interestingly, it is sung in the same key as John Coltrane's groundbreaking version
- D minor - and like Coltrane, Jefferson seems interested in stripping away all the sentimentality of the original song. The tempo is medium fast and the performance is quite aggressive. On the second time through the song, Jefferson takes great liberties with the lyric (for example, "Fish are jumpin' about on the lake, flop, flop, flop, tryin' to give the fishermen a break") and strongly accents the asides (the "flops" above). However, the recording does not entirely break with the past, as Slide Hampton lifts Gil Evans's famous background riff
and uses it to back Jefferson.
Kurt Elling not only promises "a new Body and Soul" in his song title, but he actually delivers the goods. By now, we are familiar with Elling's fastidious care in reworking the songs in his repertoire. Although his performances sound spontaneous and 'in the moment,' Elling never just wings it. Here he constructs new lyrics inspired by Dexter Gordon's rendition of this standard on the tenorist's 1976 Homecoming
release. Elling takes the listener on an ingenious ten-minute journey full of densely packed vocalese, with a little dose of pianist Hobgood as a rest stop before we reach our final destination. He rewards us with a happy ending, and we can sit and contemplate how far we have come since Coleman Hawkins
and Chu Berry
dished out their own body-and-soul-fulness back in the 1930s.
Vocalese sets words to preexisting instrumental passages, usually note for note. Invented by singer Eddie Jefferson in the early 1940s, vocalese broke through in 1952 when King Pleasure recorded Jefferson's words to a 1949 solo by tenorman James Moody. In 2001, the Grammy Hall of Fame
inducted this track but misidentified its artist as Moody, not Pleasure. At least, we think that's what Grammy meant, bless her heart. (Alzheimer's, you know.) Singing with more gusto than skill, Pleasure put vocalese on the map and then, as online biographer Alex Henderson writes, "faded into great obscurity." Isn't that the best kind?
Vocalese, invented by singer Eddie Jefferson in the early 1940s, sets words to preexisting instrumental passages, usually note for note—in contrast to scatting, which consists of independently improvised nonsense syllables. In this case, Jon Hendricks combines Duke Ellington's 1940 romp "Cotton Tail"
with Beatrix Potter's 1902 children's tale of Peter Rabbit
and his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail. After Hendricks verbalizes tenorman Ben Webster's solo, LH&R thrillingly re-create the headlong momentum of Duke's sax section. "If I hadn't been part of that group," Hendricks later reflected on LH&R, "it would be my life ambition to have been part of that group."
In 1952, Annie Ross's hip vocalese narrative of a crazy chick and her outmatched shrink, set to tenorman Wardell Gray's 1949 "Twisted," was marred by cheesy organ backing. In 1959, the "hottest new group in jazz," as Down Beat
dubbed vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, redid "Twisted" sans organ, and nailed it. Striking a blow for mental health by refusing to listen to her analyst's jive, twisted sister Annie Ross wittily punctures the pseudoscientific claptrap of psychoanalysis, which was big in 1950s America. If Freud hadn't died twenty years earlier, he would've been driven ineluctably, irretrievably mad upon hearing "Twisted." Roll over, Sigmund, and tell Alfred Adler the news: Two heads are better than one. And three heads, in the persons of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, are best of all.
October 25, 2007 · 1 comment
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