Jazz vocalizing sounds a sad note

When Mel Torme died last week, jazz lost one of its great improvisers, and a music era may be coming to a close

Pop Music

June 13, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Things ain't what they used to be in the world of jazz singing. Over the past couple of years, the jazz world has lost some of its most gifted and distinctive voices: Ella Fitzgerald in 1996, Betty Carter in 1998, and Mel Torme just last week. It's always sad when great musicians pass away, but what makes these deaths doubly depressing is the sense that an entire genre is disappearing.

Torme, Carter and Fitzgerald weren't just great singers; they were virtuosos of a sort that jazz doesn't seem to produce anymore.

What made these three loom so large in the jazz world wasn't just that they were possessed of great voices, but that they guided those voices with great minds. Torme, Carter and Fitzgerald were great improvisers, capable of spinning scat solos as supple and eloquent as anything a horn player might concoct. Where other singers left the soloing to the sidemen, these three would happily trade licks with the best in the business, as if eager to prove that a singer could be just as able an improviser as any saxophonist.

It's hard to find singers like that anymore. Of the old guard, only Jon Hendricks remains, and there are precious few youngsters eager to continue the tradition. Indeed, this may be the end of an era.

That's not to say that scat singers have become some sort of endangered species. Far from it. Non-verbal vocal improvisation (to put "scat singing" in technical terms) can be heard from many sources these days, from straight-up jazz singers like Diane Schuur to smooth R&B stars like Al Jarreau. There's even some scat singing in Phil Collins' soundtrack for the new "Tarzan" animated movie.

But the significance of scat singing has changed. Over the years, scat has gone from being a vital part of jazz singing to becoming little more than a jazzy mannerism. There are fewer and fewer singers willing to attempt the sort of full-blown vocal improvisations Torme, Carter and Fitzgerald made their stock in trade.

It's not hard to see why, either. No matter how effortless it might appear, jazz improvisation is a difficult and demanding business. Not only must a musician be in complete command of his or her instrument, so as to instantly convey any musical idea that might occur, but he or she must know enough about music to be able to think a solo through. As with any form of musical composition, an improvised solo needs structure and direction -- qualities that can't just be conjured out of thin air.

Most soloists prepare rig-orously for the task of improvisation, by practicing scales and arpeggios to build speed and agility, and by steeping themselves in music theory so they might better understand how to apply those scales and arpeggios to the harmonic possibilities of a jazz tune. It's a discipline, and not necessarily one where great effort guarantees favorable results, either creatively or commercially.

Mel Torme, for one, had the drive and dedication to pursue that. A gifted musician (in addition to singing, he wrote music and played piano and drums), he had the kind of tone and control that left audiences awestruck and singers envious. Even better, he had a winning way with lyrics, and could turn even the most simple verse into a compelling narrative.

Torme's talents were quite commercial, and when he started out in the music business, during the waning years of the big band era, he was very much a star on the rise. He and his backing singers, the Mel-Tones, had a number of hits before Torme signed with Capitol Records in 1949. Nicknamed "the Velvet Fog," he was marketed as a crooner, and topped the charts almost immediately with "Careless Hands." As the '50s got under way, Torme enjoyed tremendous success, putting several singles into the Top 10.

But Torme didn't want to be a pop singer, coasting up the charts on the easy affability of his croon. What he wanted to sing was jazz, and in 1955 he moved to Bethlehem Records, where he could make the music he wanted.

Artistically, Torme's move was absolutely the right thing. In addition to finally being able to use his full range and ability, Torme was no longer wasting his talents on mellifluous fluff -- the songs he chose in the mid- to late-'50s had substance and swing.

In a commercial sense, how-ever, Torme's decision to sing jazz was a disaster. Where once he was a regular in the Top 10, suddenly he was off the charts entirely. After 1955, Torme cracked the Top 40 only once, with a 1962 single called "Comin' Home Baby." It peaked at No. 38.

Given the musical rigors and commercial consequences of taking the improviser's path, it's no wonder more vocalists haven't followed Torme's lead. It's much easier (and more profitable) to apply a scat flourish to a soulful groove and enjoy a patina of jazzy sophistication, as Jarreau and many other "smooth jazz" singers do.

There are still great jazz singers around, from Shirley Horn and Abbey Lincoln to Sheila Jordan and Dee Dee Bridgewater. If the best of the younger generation -- such as Cassandra Wilson -- are focused more on bringing a jazz take to the phrasing and feel of a song, that's just the current taste. Jazz vocal improvisation may yet be revived, perhaps even brought to giddier heights than before.

Until then, be thankful we still have our old Mel Torme, Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald albums.

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