Jon Hendricks

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What is Vocalese?

Vocalese is the setting of lyrics to established jazz orchestral instrumentals. The word was coined by jazz critic Leonard Feather to describe the first Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross album, Sing a Song of Basie. On that album, overdubbing was used so that the three singers using Jon's lyrics could replace the entire horn section of the Count Basie Orchestra. Jon feels that the word most properly applies to such elaborate multi-voice orchestral works, and it is in this context that Jon is the "Father of Vocalese".

The term is muddied, however, because most commentators leave the word "orchestral" out of the definition. They do not distinguish between the multi-part works pioneered by Hendricks & Lambert, and the earlier style pioneered by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, where one solo instrument's part is replaced by a single singer. The styles are obviously closely related, and it can be hard to tell where one shades into the other. It was this definition of vocalese that Kurt Elling was thinking of when he called Jon "the godfather of vocalese and perfecter of the art."

Whatever definition you use, vocalese is not scat, though one is commonly mistaken for the other. Scat is singing nonsense syllables, generally to a tune which is improvised on the spot. Vocalese is singing words to a pre-arranged tune.

Two predominant threads in vocalese lyrics are storytelling and tributes. The latter is perhaps more obvious -- frequently lyrics are a tribute to the musician who originally recorded the tune in question. For instance, Eddie Jefferson's lyrics for Coleman Hawkins' famous recording of "Body and Soul" sing the his praises -- "Don't you know, he was the king of saxophones." Likewise Jon's "I Remember Clifford [Brown]".

Tell a story through the solo is another common trend. Kurt Elling's "Those Clouds Are Heavy, You Dig?" is an adaptation of Rainer Maria Rilke's story "How the Thimble Came to be God" set to a Paul Desmond solo. Jon's "Cottontail" retells the familiar children's tale "Peter Cottontail" to Duke Ellington's tune.

See also The Vocalese Page.