“Vocal only” means that those who are also play an instrument on the recording belong in another category. Apologies, as always, to the great singers (including Mark Murphy, Eddie Jefferson, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Jon Hendricks just to name a few) who didn’t make the list.
1. Kurt Elling: “Night Dream” from Live in Chicago
I have mixed feelings about vocalese and insofar as I draw attention to it the historian in me says I should be putting Eddie Jefferson or Jon Hendricks here (which I easily could have done). But the first time I heard this one (live in New Haven at the summer jazz festival there in 2001 or 2002) it knocked me out. Elling’s vocalese treatments of Dexter Gordon’s “Tanya” and Coltrane’s “Resolution” (seek out the Live In Chicago: Out Takes version) are awesome too, but the lyrical ingenuity, soul and energy of this performance (on which he writes lyrics to and sings the solos by Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan) are particularly exceptional.
2. Leon Thomas: “Creator Has a Master Plan” from Karma by Pharoah Sanders
If ever a jazz song epitomized the term “groovy” (in the hippie sense, as opposed to possessing of a rhythmic groove) this would be the one. Leon is soulful and earnest and then at various points goes into some of the wild Pygmy-inspired yodeling that was a signature of his.
3. Bob Dorough: “Nothing Like You” from the Sorcerer by Miles Davis
The first time I heard this album I didn’t have the jacket in front of me and just when I thought it was over I heard this track. I thought someone had slipped acid into my tea. On further reflection it’s not that weird (though it is pretty incongruous with the rest of the album) but it is really appealing, cheeky and swinging.
4. Oscar Brown, Jr.: “But I Was Cool” from Sin and Soul
I first heard this track on a boxed set of Beat-era music and spoken word. I eventually fell in love with the Sin and Soul album, which is wonderfully soulful, while being at various points clever, fun and arrestingly grim, and Oscar Brown is to this day one of my favorite artists. This track still makes me smile every time I hear it.
5. Joe Williams: “Everyday I Have the Blues” from Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings (with Count Basie)
This is such a classic I hardly know what to say. Swinging, soulful, nuanced . . . (no-whoa-whoa-whoa-WHOA-OH-OH-body loves me, no-who-who-who-WHOA-oh-body seems to care!) . . . sorry, couldn’t resist.
6. Miles Griffith and Roger Holland: “Yes, Yes, Oh Yes” from Truth, Justice and the Blues by James Williams and ICU
We recorded this one (instrumentally) on the first Playdate album, trying hard to evoke the spirit of the vocals. Holland testifies mightily and Griffith offers some compelling scatting, trading fours with Bill Pierce on tenor. When they sing together, the blend is wonderful.
7. Johnny Hartman: “My One and Only Love” from John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (with John Coltrane)
Another classic without much commentary needed. Hartman was more of a crooner than a jazz singer, perhaps, but he fits in just perfectly with Coltrane’s quartet on this classic track. I went back and forth between this and “Lush Life” about a dozen times, and if I did this again tomorrow it may be that I’d choose that one again.
8. Bobby McFerrin: “Third Floor Richard” from A Night in Copenhagen by Charles Lloyd
When singing in a jazz context, McFerrin’s command is unequaled (yeah, I know, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but I’m serious here). This live recording, done well before McFerrin became famous, features an extended scat solo accompanied only by Palle Danielsson’s bass. His command over the changes and the nuances of the language is stunning.
9. King Pleasure: “Parker’s Mood,” reissued on various collections
Eddie Jefferson’s wonderful vocalese lyric was popularized on this recording by King Pleasure, who also turned heads with Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood For Love.” Pleasure does an admirable job of capturing the nuance and soul of Charlie Parker’s original solo while navigating the complexity of the vocalese.
10. Tony Bennett: “When In Rome” from The Bill Evans/Tony Bennett Album
Not all of Bennett’s work has been firmly in the jazz idiom, but this entire duo album with Bill Evans is Exhibit A of his credentials. The ballads are great too, but I chose this one for its sly swing and cheeky lyric delivery.