What is vocalese? It is the art of writing lyrics to jazz tunes and solos. In “Doodlin’,” Jon Hendricks’ wrote lyrics to Horace Silver’s music. It starts with a catchy blues-based melody and witty lyric, goes to a fun bridge, then the fireworks begin. The poetry, over the main theme and then Silver’s improvised piano solo, is a brilliantly funny take on analysis and reaching the unconscious through drawing, doodling, with a sly sexy turn at the end of the song. The big challenge in singing the solo portion is there is no actual melody, rather a long passage based on the moment of felt improvisation. It requires great concentration and focus to do it well.
King Pleasure’s often recorded “Moody’s Mood for Love” (“I’m in the Mood for Love” from around 1952-54) was the first fully realized vocalese recording and hit. “Twisted” was released on the same record. Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks started writing in these early years also. Eventually Jon combined writing, arranging, and singing talents with Annie and Dave Lambert to form the dynamic trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
Jon has a vast catalogue of jazz poetry lyrics. Called the James Joyce of Jive by the NY Times in 1959, Dave and I think he should be a permanent American Poet Laureate. In 1985 the Manhattan Transfer commissioned him to write a complete album of lyrics for “Vocalese.” This tour de force of dazzling singing shows off Jon at his word wizardry best. Listen to the philosophizing of “Sing Joy Spring” or the hilarious “Blee Blop Blues,” lamenting a late night dripping faucet.
One day in 1979 Dave heard a jazz singer/writer on the car radio who wigged him out, a great vocalese artist we’d never heard of, Mark Murphy. His career had begun in the late 50’s just in time to be submerged by the British Invasion of rock n roll. When we discovered that Mark was singing in a cocktail lounge in Tiburon we drove down from Santa Rosa to see him. We were hooked. Through him we discovered Eddie Jefferson who came to play at the Inn of the Beginning in Cotati, where we saw him a month before he died. In 1980 Mark released “Bop for Kerouac” one of the all time greatest vocal jazz albums. It was nominated for a Grammy.
Kurt Elling is probably our most important vocalese jazz singer/writer today. Whereas Jon is all street, funk, witty, and soul food wisdom, Kurt is refined, academic, deeply romantic, spiritual, lofty, and deliciously erotic.
So, the vocalese tradition continues to challenge those of us who find this music the Mt. Olympus of jazz singing. Although we have not yet recorded vocalese covers, Dave and I continue to work away at these songs both at home and in performance. We are also trying our hand at writing original vocalese songs and lyrics.