By Steve Provizer
2019 is the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Double Six of Paris, so it is a good time to shine a spotlight on the group’s spectacular work.
A strong case can be made that the Double Six of Paris most completely mastered the group performance of “vocalese,” the art of singing words put to jazz instrumentals. The only other serious competitors for the top spot are Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and The Manhattan Transfer. 2019 is the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Double Six, so it is a good time to take a look at some of the key moments in vocalese history and to shine a particular spotlight on the spectacular work of Les Double Six De Paris.
You might call vocalese a first cousin to scat singing, which is the art of putting syllables (not words) to notes, either as set pieces, as Ella Fitzgerald sometimes did, or as improvisations. Nonsense syllables have probably always been a part of vernacular singing (“Hey Nonny Nonny” goes way back). In 1911, vaudeville performer Gene Greene recorded “King of the Bungaloos” (with typically racist content of the era) and he extended nonsense syllable singing to the point that it might be considered a kind of scat. Listen for it near the end of the tune.
Scat singing that can be identified as “jazz” goes back to the 1920’s. The most frequently cited early example is Louis Armstrong’s 1926 wordless vocal on “Heebie Jeebies.”
Through the 1930’s and mid 40’s, the use of nonsense syllables became a kind of hipster language, as purveyed by Cab Calloway, Harry the Hipster Gibson, and others. Guitarist/singer Slim Gaillard was singlehandedly responsible for an entire hip lexicon.
Possibly the closest precursor to the approach that Jon Hendricks brought to its high point in the 1950’s was pioneered by the Delta Rhythm Boys, who performed lyrics to the complete song, including Ray Nance’s solo in a recent hit, “Take The A-Train,” in 1941.
Another important purveyor of scat and early adapter of the new bop language was Dave Lambert, who arranged vocal groups and sang for many jazz sessions, eventually co-founding Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. He partnered with singer Buddy Stewart to record several forward-looking sides with trumpeter Red Rodney in 1946.
If there is a godfather of vocalese it is Eddie Jefferson, who was a hoofer, drummer, and singer. Jefferson recalled that singer Leo Watson suggested to him the idea of putting words to well known jazz solos, and Jefferson came up with one of the most famous examples of the genre: “Moody’s Mood For Love,” whose lyrics Jefferson wrote to a solo by saxophonist James Moody. Jefferson’s version was copped by the singer King Pleasure, who recorded the version that became a jukebox hit. Here is the Moody 1948 original and Jefferson’s vocalese version, performed by Jefferson much later in life.
King Pleasure did some great work, but didn’t forge any new directions, pretty much following Eddie Jefferson’s approach. The next innovator in vocalese was Jon Hendricks. Hendricks — who I would also put up as possibly the greatest scat singer in jazz — took vocalese to the next level by taking arrangements of tunes that had been made for larger ensembles, writing lyrics, and assigning vocal parts to every section of the band and to every solo. The first such effort was the tune Four Brothers, a staple of the Woody Herman band, recorded in 1957 by Hendricks and the Dave Lambert Singers.
In 1958, Hendricks recorded “Sing a Song of Basie” with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross was born. The group recorded an astonishing number of tunes with lyrics by Hendricks until the dissolution of the group in 1964 (Annie Ross left the group in 1962 and was replaced by Yolanda Bavan). It’s not easy to decide what to choose from the group’s many recordings, but here are a few examples; the final being an stunning live scat singing performance by Hendricks and Lambert.
Meanwhile, during the 1950’s, France was developing a vocalese tradition. Expatriate singer/pianist Blossom Dearie, who came to Paris in 1952, formed The Blue Stars of Paris. They did mostly close-harmony singing and scat with a little vocalese. They made a splash with George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” in 1956. Here they perform the song “Move.”
One important member of the Blue Stars was Mimi Perrin, who in 1959 with Christiane Legrand put together the Double Six of Paris, bringing ex-Blue Star Roger Guerin with her. At various times, members of the group included: Monique Guérin, Louis Aldebert, Ward Swingle (future leader of the Swingle Singers), Jean-Louis Conrozier, Christiane Legrand (Michele Legrand’s sister), Claude Germain, Jacques Denjean, Jean-Claude Briodin, Eddy Louiss, Claudine Barge, Robert Smart, Bernard Lubat and Jef Gilson (arranger).
They called themselves the Double Six because on recordings they double-tracked themselves in order to create the full sound of a large ensemble, just as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross had done in “Sing a Song Of Basie.” All the Double Six ‘s singing is in French, but even if you aren’t able to understand the lyrics, the attack, cadence, intonation, and blend make the group’s stylistic verisimilitude clear.
We’ll start with this tune, from their first, 1960 album, Meet Quincy Jones. The original Jones version is followed by the Double Six version, which renders the ensemble sound and the solos beautifully.
Because there is a live video of the group performing Boplicity and Rat Race back to back, I’ll feature these together. “Rat Race” comes from Meet Quincy Jones and “Boplicity” (from Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool) was on their 1962 recording Swingin’ Singin’!
In 1963, the Double Six recorded an album with a formidable group that included Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Kenny Clarke. There’s a lot of solo work by Diz and Bud on the record, but also some great singing by Perrin and co. Here’s “Groovin’ High,” a Gillespie contrafact on the song “Whispering.” Diz plays superbly, with Perrin handling the Charlie Parker solo with aplomb.
The Sing Ray Charles album from 1964 is not a favorite of mine, so no examples from there. Instead, let’s hear their beautiful rendition of the Woody Herman classic “Early Autumn” from Swingin Singin’! Pay special attention to how Perrin handles the Stan Getz solo (the first vocal solo is Herman’s alto solo, the second is Getz’s tenor solo).
I’ll finish this homage off with something that was recorded by both the Double Six on Swingin Singin’! and by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on Sing a Song of Basie: “Tickle Toe.” Both performances boast impeccable section work and virtuoso solo work. The Double Six take it a lot faster than the original, while L,H&R stick very close to the original tempo. Which is “better?” I don’t know if such a judgment is possible — or necessary.
There are a number of fine groups around the world who over the years and up to the present continue to carry the vocalese and close harmony tradition forward. Some of these are: Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, Swingle Singers, Singers Unlimited, Take Six, Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet, Highline Vocal Jazz, Micsing (Netherlands), Les Voice Messengers (France), Quartet do Rio (Brazil), The Real Group (Sweden). Java Five (Germany), King’s Singers (Britain), Windsingers (Hungary), InvOls (Russia). And there are hundreds of college and adult acapella groups whose music includes this repertoire.
For years, I wasn’t much interested in jazz singing, but when I ultimately discovered this material, it was a real ear-opener for me, as I hope it has been for you. In the meantime, look out for those Cloudbursts.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.