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Top 10 Jazz Vocal Performances WITH Instrument

This is for singers (of either gender) who also play an instrument on the cut in question (or vice versa). I just realized as I went to submit that due to a rather glaring oversight there are no Chet Baker recordings here; I don’t really want to “bump” any of these individual tracks, so let’s just give Chet a “Lifetime Achievement Award.”

1. Louis Armstrong: “Heebie Jeebies” from the original Hot Five recordings, reissued on various collections

This is one of the catchiest songs in jazz history AND it features some wonderful playing by Armstrong (and Johnny Dodds and others) AND it features the scat solo that introduced that sound and technique to jazz. The legend of Armstrong having invented it spontaneously because he dropped a sheet of paper is almost certainly false, but no matter, this record more than holds its own on its own terms.

2. Carmen McRrae: “I’m Pulling Through” from Piano Jazz With Marian McPartland

I LOVE CARMEN McRAE! There, I said it. I PARTICULARLY love the recordings where she accompanies herself on piano, which I wish she did more often. This intimate solo ballad performance is a particularly compelling, with tender vocals and gorgeous chords melding together perfectly.

3. Les McCann: “Compared to What” from Swiss Movement

McCann’s iconic initial meeting with saxophonist Eddie Harris culminated in a single vocal performance, one that wound up becoming a hit single. I first heard this in a car on route 27 in New Jersey (which I fortunately was not driving or I would surely be dead by now) and it was much like the moment in the “Wizard of Oz” where it goes into color. I have now heard this hundreds (thousands?) of times, but can still remember the revelation.

4. Nat “King” Cole: “It’s Only a Paper Moon” from original trio recordings, reissued on various collections

I could easily populate this list entirely with performances by the King Cole Trio. This one is my favorite today, though at other times this week it could’ve been “On the Sunny Side of the Street” or “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” or “Straighten Up and Fly Right” or “Beautiful Moons Ago.” This version of “Paper Moon” is my point of reference whenever I play the tune, no matter what I may do with it.

5. Tony Williams: “There Comes a Time” from Ego

This is probably the weirdest song on the list, with little stylistic precedent, and I LOVE it. The song itself is both catchy and challenging, the energy is off-the-hook and I personally find Tony’s singing to be really appealing, so much so that I’m still hoping against hope that someday I’ll figure out what the heck he’s talking about.

6. Dizzy Gillespie: “Oop-Pop-A-Da,” (with Kenny Hagood, second vocal) from Mercury recordings, reissued on various collectionss

Dizzy shares the frontline with “Pancho” Hagood, but his own singing (particularly his scat solo) steals the show to these ears. It’s amazing how he managed to find such an effective balance between showmanship and fine art in the 1940s and ‘50s. Oh yeah, he plays some pretty good trumpet here too.

7. Clark Terry and Red Mitchell: “Hey Mr. Mumbles, What Did You Say?” from For Duke and Basie

This was a last minute substitution for the more famous “Mumbles” from Oscar Peterson’s Trio + 1 album, where Terry introduced the well-loved “Mumbles” character. He and bassist Mitchell both contribute vocals to this lesser-known track that is one of the best antidotes to anyone claiming that jazz is inaccessible (and it is not dumbed down one iota, featuring great solos by both players).

8. Charles Mingus: “Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” from Oh Yeah

This whole album (Oh Yeah!) features a ton of great singing . . . er, I mean hollering by Mingus. If you value “pretty,” stay away. If you value soulful and intense, acquire this immediately if you don’t already have it.

9. Mose Allison: “Your Mind Is On Vacation” from I Don’t Worry About a Thing

Before Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough there was Mose, whose mixture of country, blues, jazz and comedy created a unique and resonant body of work. This one epitomizes his style and features both great vocals and great piano from Mose.

10. Slim Gaillard: “Yip Roc Heresy” from Verve recordings, reissued on various collectionss

The first nine of these recordings are in English, in some cases including some scatting. As such it is important to make sure that the language of Vout gets representation as well. The underrated guitarist Gaillard gets the nod here as the foremost (and, I think, only) speaker of Vout in music history.

4 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. David

     /  April 20, 2010

    #3 “Compared to What” Not sure where I first heard this song, maybe at Saratoga in the summer. Just listened to it again, and it is great! Top 10 for sure.

  2. anonymous

     /  March 20, 2015

    BLOSSOM DEARIE.
    SHIRLEY HORN.
    JOAO GILBERTO.

  3. anonymous

     /  March 20, 2015

    PS: This is my own pick of the Clark Terry “Mumbles” that I know –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aPdSCXTcSA

    His time, man!

  4. Greg W

     /  May 6, 2016

    Hi,Noah! Thanks for putting Mose on the list (and you could plug the word “satirical” in front of “comedy”) . I would love to read an entire blog article regarding your thoughts on Mose Allison. I have heard him twice in Chicago (late 70’s and around 2000) and his caustic, sardonic commentaries ring as true today as they ever did! Yeah, funny, but also deep! Keep up your great work and keep on keepin’ on, man! Your fan and student, Greg (NW Indiana)

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