An Ode To The Wordless Melody Vocal

Listening to Felix's feature on female Latin jazz vocalists got me thinking about this again. But it all began when music super-consumer Steve Smith alerted ABS to this charming little take on "I Want To Be Happy," produced for Time Out New York:

There's a bit more about vocalist Jo Lawry, who is quite charming in this video, at The Volume, the music blog of TONY. Surely, Steve intuited that we have a thing for in-storein-office performances here at NPR Music. But it really got my brain churning about my love for what seems to be an increasingly common texture in jazz these days: the non-scatted wordless vocal.

Ok, so she's improvising in that video there — hear me out. Lawry is a part of Fred Hersch's Pocket Orchestra, a group that has released one of my favorite discs so far this year (Live At Jazz Standard). There's a lot to admire about that record: Hersch's duetting with Richie Barshay on brushes; the smart, fresh compositions; Ralph Alessi's legato tack on the trumpet. But it's Lawry's wordless vocals which really sell me on the whole thing. When she flits about while duplicating or stating the melody line, it pretty much slays. (Check out some examples in the sidebar of this Fred Hersch profile.)

I'm not talking about vocal improvising a la Ella Fitzgerald here, engrossing as that can be. It's the much more infrequent use of wordless vocals as a melody instrument which intrigues me here.

From its very beginnings, it's always been a conspicuously arty device in a form of expression which treads the boundary of folk and high arts. Take Adelaide Hall's 1927 spot on Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call," which to my knowledge is the first jazz example of the phenomenon. Audio here, or YouTubed:

Hall's entry is a sort of warbling, nearly operatic delivery. But all that turns to throaty growls as she gets to the tail end of the song form (it's a 12 bar blues, with a little hitch in it). Once we get to Bubber Miley's trumpet feature, the brief allusions to European classical music has completely melted away. And when Hall returns for the last call-and-response chorus, it's all blues feeling coming through; presumably, she's improvising too. (One wonders if that had any inspiration on Louis Armstrong's vocal obbligato on the third chorus of "West End Blues"?) All that is embedded within a lot of other familiar sonic information, most notably the round, sweet winds and medium-slow tempo signifying the ballroom dance music of the era.

So why do it this way? Why would Ellington paint such an unfamiliar stroke, especially in an age where plenty of blues singers were available to sing lyrics? The only answer I could proffer is that he trusted his ear, his perception of which sounds were hip, so much that he was willing to buck convention in favor of a sound which, somehow, "needed" to be expressed in the way he heard it. In other words, he had to have been somewhat conscious that he was doing something new. It's telling that Ellington returned to the device several times throughout his career; I might point out the use of actual opera singers in the Second Sacred Concert, or the Ellington orchestra's work with the classically-trained Kay Davis in the '40s. The latter, of course, produced a more operatically-oriented remake of "Creole Love Call":

Throughout the years, the device that Ellington brought to the table (or at least popularized) was picked up a number of different times and ways in jazz. I'm no expert on the subject — only an amateur admirer — but I could list a few key examples. There's Milton Nascimento's weaving in and out of falsetto lyrics on Wayne Shorter's recording of "Ponta de Areia"; Donald Byrd's gospel choir backing on A New Perspective; most things that Slam Stewart touched (one example); Abbey Lincoln's declamatory cries on records of the early '60s (Straight Ahead, Max Roach's We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite, Percussion Bitter Sweet). Later, there's Pedro Aznar with the Pat Metheny Group, and also the Bobby McFerrin/Chick Corea pairing, both of which certainly have their moments. And then there's a personal favorite: the use of operatic sopranos in the by-definition unconventional band led by saxophonist Charlie Rouse (later of Thelonious Monk's quartet) and French hornist Julius Watkins. That group was called Les Jazz Modes, and I wrote a bit about one of their reissues here.

As it turns out, the wordless "instrumental" vocal is actually pretty well-trod in jazz; nobody would call it a bold, new innovation now. But the very model of the jazz singer remains someone who sings standards using, like, words and stuff. And so the texture remains relatively uncommon, and when well-executed, potentially revelatory. It still implies a subtext of thoughtful craft.

Perhaps that's part of why the wordless vocal seems to be experiencing a resurgence today. Why, you hear it being practiced quite well and creatively in recent records featuring Gretchen Parlato, Lionel Loueke, Sara Serpa, Theo Bleckmann, Jen Shyu, Magos Herrera, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis, Esperanza Spalding ... I could keep going. If it isn't their predominant mode of delivery, then it's certainly something that many of today's hottest young vocalists have bothered to carry in their bags of tricks.

Of course, all these singers probably adopted it primarily because, you know, it sounds cool. In beginning to wrap this up, I propose that if this modern trend has an antecedent, it might be Luciana Souza's recordings with Maria Schneider and Guillermo Klein, which are things of beauty:

Any other wordless melody vocalists to add to the growing list? Corrections to the historical record? Anyone made it this far to begin with? Comment, please.

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