In music and especially in jazz, says WNYC’s Sara Fishko, one thing leads to another. For lyricist and singer Jon Hendricks, who turns ninety today, it was some great instrumental jazz solos that led him to make an unforgettable leap into song. Here is the next Fishko Files…
Vocalese lyricists work to find poetic, evocative words to go with solos and instrumental music, originally created by sax, trumpet and piano players, etc. It may sometimes sound like scat singing, but scat is largely improvised and seldom uses real lyrics. Vocalese uses precisely-worded lyrics that tell a story.
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross) popularized the vocal jazz form called vocalese (though others had tried it before)*. But, until LHR came along, it was far from a well-known genre. Their execution of vocalese was so dazzling and virtuosic – the words by Hendricks seemed so inevitable, natural to the music’s tune -- that vocalese became a phenomenon.
LHR’s first album, “Sing a Song of Basie,” was a huge success, and launched the group to the top of the Billboard jazz chart. The album was meant to be sung by a fleet of hired studio singers. “‘Sing a Song of Basie’ was a daredevil piece of work,” Jon Hendricks said. “It had never been done. And we didn't know what we were doing, actually.” LHR’s attempts with the studio singers failed, so the trio re-recorded all the vocal parts themselves. Over-dubbing the album worked much better. Later, the group preferred to abandon overdubbing and perform as a trio.
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross - "Four"
Lambert, Hendricks & Ross used a variety of jazz solos in their work. One in particular, Miles Davis’ solo in Four, from their album “The Swingers!” (1958), caused a good-hearted scuffle between Hendricks and Davis.
Right: Jon Hendricks on September 9th, 2011. Photo by Sara Fishko
Jon Hendricks: “I was playing up in Toronto. And it was a steak house. The jazz festival came to town. Miles was in it. So I had ordered me a New York steak. And they brought it to me and I had the knife and fork. And Miles comes in the front door. And he comes over and I said, “Hey!” I stood up. I said, “Miles!” He sits down in my chair, picks up my knife and fork, and proceeds to eat my steak. So I sat down next to him and I watched him eat my steak. He ate the whole thing. I said, “Man, you ate my steak!” He said, “You messed with my solos!” So he ate my steak.
Lambert Hendricks and Ross had a great six years. Annie Ross left the group in 1962. Dave Lambert died in a car accident in 1966. Despite the end of their collaboration, LHR had an impact on vocalese that cannot be understated. Wall Street Journal writer Will Friedwald explains in his 2010 book A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singer: “Before Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, there were certain preconceived notions of what the human voice could do and what instruments were supposed to do. LHR showed how an instrumental, big band performance could be translated into vocal terms – not only with voices, but with words. In the process, they became the greatest jazz vocal group that ever was.”
* Before LHR vocalese had been explored by some other musicians. Among them were Eddie Jefferson, Babs Gonzales and King Pleasure. In particular, King Pleasure's “I’m in the Mood for Love," which came to be known as Moody’s Mood for Love after James Moody's sax solo.
Jon Hendricks will perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Saturday, September 24th. For more information, visit JALC's website.
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