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Jazz enthusiasts are about as varied as they come in terms of their preferences in jazz styles, favorite instruments, Miles Davis-era rankings, and, yes, whether vocal jazz is as good as instrumental jazz. The answer to the latter is a resounding “Yes!” How can we talk about jazz without talking about the great jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald?
The focus of vocal jazz is obviously on the singer; the voice is the instrument. It makes sense, then, that most vocal jazz will be framed in a more traditional song form. Words and lyrics add a structure but this is not necessarily limiting. Rhythmic variation plus the innovations of scat singing (wordless syllables) and vocalese (words are added to instrumentals) meant the voice can go toe-to-toe with even the best instrumental solo with improvisation in phrasing, rhythm and pitch. Thus vocal jazz songs can range between pop/musical standards and more experimental forms. The sky's the limit.
The best jazz singers are the ones who bring you into the song, using their interpretation and delivery to add weight and emotion. They can groove, soar and despair. They’re playful and warm, technical yet loose. They are a significant part of the musical canon and deserve the attention of all jazz fans. Here are 10.
The last Billie Holiday album to be released in her lifetime, Lady In Satin (1958) got a mixed reception upon its initial release. Holiday’s voice had changed and withered, the years of alcohol/drug addiction and abusive relationships doing their part on her mind and body. But there’s a lush tenderness in these songs. The arrangements with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra are gorgeous on this set of songs she’d never recorded before. The album opener is heartbreaking with the lyrics: “I’m a fool to want you / I’m a fool to want you / to want a love that can’t be true / a love that’s there for others too.” Holiday always had the knack for making listeners deeply feel the emotion of a song. Listen to “I Get Along Without You Very Well” and anyone who ever longed has for an ex can instantly relate to Holiday as she sings about moving on until she’s reminded of old times. The melancholy themes of loving the wrong person, losing in love or looking back on lovers long gone make this album a go-to for rainy days alone under a cozy blanket.
Because he’s Frank Sinatra you are probably picturing the Rat Pack image, Vegas and those corny late-career movies. But casual listeners forget that Sinatra was also an artist who cared about songs, their sound and how he sang them. When bossa nova (a smooth jazz/samba fusion) became the craze in the ’60s he didn’t just bandwagon, he recruited Antônio Carlos Jobim, a pioneer of the genre, on a sincere collaboration that resulted in Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim (1967), a Grammy-nominated album. On a set of mostly Jobim compositions, Sinatra has never sounded so smooth and soft; his interpretations and delivery hit you in the gut with meaning and quiet emotion. The requisite bossa standard “The Girl from Ipanema” is purposeful and airy. The orchestra purrs and Jobim’s guitar lulls. Other favorites include his version of “Corcovado” called “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” here and “Once I Loved (O Amor em Paz).” Through delicate strums and occasional Jobim backing vocals, Sinatra is at once sophisticated and sensitive, laidback and tender.
Re-released on CD under the name At the Village Vanguard in the early ’90s, Betty Carter (1970) was Betty Carter’s first live release (thanks to the master of an earlier live set being stolen). It has the edge over that other set (which was later released in 1975 as Finally) because of the way she mixes it up with the audience, giving a raw immediacy to her characteristic improvisational phrasing and scatting, making it seem like you’re in the audience. Carter was a creative force—she painted masterpieces with words, bending and twisting them at will and she wasn’t afraid to up or lower the tempo mid-song, challenging the musicians to keep up or get out. The album bursts open with “By The Bend Of The River” and she sasses it up with listeners on her co-penned “Ego.” She breaks down familiar numbers from Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Hart and re-forms them into her own creations, both slow-burns and explosions. A jazz innovator, this album is a great example of Carter flexing and honing her craft. No vinyl reissues since 1970 so get to crate-digging.
Jon Hendricks initially made his name as one-third of the hugely influential vocal group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, known for popularizing vocalese where words are sung to well-known instrumentals, even to previously improvised solos. A skilled scat singer and lyricist, Hendricks would often use words to tell clever stories or just verbally describe what the solo felt like, a scatting Shel Silverstein if-you-will. On his first solo studio album, A Good Git-Together (1959), Hendricks teams with Pony Poindexter (alto-sax), Wes and Monk Montgomery (guitar and bass), an originally un-credited Cannonball and Nat Adderley (alto-sax and cornet), among others. The result is like a great party featuring some Hendricks-penned songs like the title track about the group of musicians playing together, high-flying scat-filled “Minor Catastrophe,” and surprisingly straightforward vocal versions of standards “Social Call” and “Out of the Past.” With vocalese and scat throughout, in addition to great Montgomery and Poindexter solos, A Good Git-Together is worth tracking down.
Sarah Vaughan had one of those voices that you just want to hear all day long. She could go deep to female baritone levels and high up to soprano. Vaughan is supported by a trio (Jimmy Jones, piano, Richard Davis, bass, Roy Haynes, drums) on this intimate 1957 live set At Mister Kelly’s, recorded at a jazz club in Chicago. She smolders on mid-tempo numbers and ballads. She laughs with the audience as the musicians work out the key on “Willow Weep For Me” then she improvises lines toward the end after someone knocks something over. But everyone’s so relaxed it doesn’t matter and they keep going. Things get snappy on “Just One of Those Things,” playful on “Honeysuckle Rose,” and heartbreaking on “Just A Gigolo.” My personal favorite is closer “How High The Moon” on which the actual lyrics go out the window with lines like “Ella Fitzgerald sings this song real real real crazy… that’s the way she sings it, so I’m gonna try to sing it that way for you.” It is exactly what a late-night at a small jazz club should sound like.
Jimmy Scott sang in a high tenor/alto range (due to Kallmann Syndrome which prevented his voice from maturing) that wrung out every ounce of sadness and longing from every syllable. He began his career with Lionel Hampton’s band in the ’40s before unfortunately signing with Herman Lubinsky, who unfairly held him to a lifetime contract and resulted in two albums for other labels being pulled (Falling In Love Is Wonderful (1963) and The Source in 1970). A discouraged Scott eventually retreated from the music business entirely before enjoying a late-career revival in the early ’90s (Fire Walk With Me soundtrack, anyone?). Reissued on vinyl in 2015, The Source is on the torch-song side of jazz, with slow abstract orchestra strings, made even slower by Scott, who liked to hold onto notes as if his life depended on it—his enthralling voice penetrates your soul. It has spine-tingling versions of “On Broadway,” “Unchained Melody” and “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” that’ll just break your heart. Accompanied by musicians like Ron Carter (bass) and Junior Mance (piano), The Source is an underrated masterpiece.
If you closed your eyes and imagined what a hip male jazz singer is supposed to sound like, your mind would invariably be hearing Mark Murphy. The man oozed cool and had the talent to back it up. A prolific artist, he began his career in the late ’50s, recording albums in the U.S. and Europe into the 21st century that covered pop standards, swing, blues, bop, vocalese and poetry jazz. Murphy recorded Midnight Mood (1968) in late ’67 in Germany with an octet peeled from one of the great international jazz bands, the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band. Opening acapella on the Duke Ellington/Ben Webster tune “Jump for Joy,” Murphy has the confidence to declare himself worthy of listening without accompaniment but then the band jumps in and he goes scat crazy. The album progresses from early evening lightness to darker late-night stare-at-your-drink fare like Murphy’s original “Hopeless” and his deeply-felt take on “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Midnight Mood is a transition album for Murphy as he moves away from his traditional crooner beginnings into more rhythmic variation, establishing a style all his own.
Probably more known now for her smooth pop/jazz standards, like on her classic What A Diff’rence A Day Makes! (1959), Dinah Washington was comfortable with jump, blues, R&B, pop and jazz; her bluesy vocals fit any style she wanted. Smooth jazz is all well and good but if you want to hear Washington bring the heat, Dinah Jams (1955) is the album for you. Recorded in the summer of ’54, Dinah Jams sees Washington performing in front of a live studio audience in Los Angeles with a fantastic group of musicians including Clifford Brown (trumpet), Clark Terry (trumpet), and Max Roach (drums), among others. It is basically a loosely organized jam session of an album which opens with an almost 10 minute version of “Lover Come Back To Me” then moves through a blazing medley of “Alone Together,” “Summertime,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” The album highlight has to be the closer, “You Go To My Head,” which opens as a traditional ballad but then the tempo picks up into an extended instrumental section before Washington comes back in to belt out the ending. Pure fire.
It’s hard to imagine John Coltrane as a supportive accompanist to a singer and that’s because there’s really only one album on which he collaborated with one, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963). Coltrane was coming off some bad reviews for his experimentations in modal and free jazz and it was suggested he record with a singer. Johnny Hartman was an underappreciated balladeer, who had sung in Earl Hines’ and Dizzy Gillespie’s bands, and crooned like his voice was made of rich, deep butter but never quite broke into the mainstream as a solo artist. Hartman’s smooth baritone, a subdued bass (Jimmy Garrison), lightly brushed drums (Elvin Jones), sensitive piano (McCoy Tyner), and restrained tenor sax from Coltrane take us on a journey of love’s initial spark and devotion (“They Say It’s Wonderful” and “My One and Only Love”) through disillusionment (“Lush Life”) and eventual nostalgia (“Autumn Serenade”). A joining of two masters, Coltrane is stunning in his ability to express the same yearning sentiments with his sax as Hartman effortlessly can with lyrics.
When someone asks about ballsy jazz singers, I only think of Anita O’Day. Big personality and scat extraordinaire, O’Day redefined the image of what a female jazz singer should be. In the big band era she bucked the trend of evening gowns and wore jackets and skirts. She danced, improvised and challenged musicians to keep up with her rather than just stand there and stick to the melody. Her unwillingness to conform and her addictions meant she didn’t break through as a pop star but the jazz world embraced her in the ’50s and ’60s. Anita Sings the Most (aka Anita Sings for Oscar) is an early Verve album released in 1957 and is one of her best. Backed by the Oscar Peterson Quartet, O’Day’s smoky vocals swing between speedy numbers and expert balladry. Peterson on piano is a flurry on opener “’S Wonderful / They Can't Take That Away From Me” and especially on “Them There Eyes” but O’Day gamely keeps up with her easy scat style. O’Day may have learned how to assert herself in the big band but her phraseology truly shines when backed by small jazz combos.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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