Music: God is in the Details

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The Independent Culture
VOCALESE IS the technique of singing words to tunes and improvised solos taken from jazz records. It's one of those challenges - like ice- sculpture, say, or underwater macrame - that seems so incredibly difficult that you might wonder why anyone would ever bother.

But Eddie Jefferson, King Pleasure and Annie Ross turned it into a triumphant sub-genre, continued in more recent decades by jazz-oriented pop artists such as Joni Mitchell, Manhattan Transfer and Chaka Khan.

The technique became something of a secret agenda for Manhattan Transfer, who hid hardcore vocalese and tributes to Jefferson (such as "Eddie and the Bean") among the more glitzy items such as "Chanson d'Amour" and "Tuxedo Junction".

On their 1979 album Extensions there's a little treat for vocalese fans - a virtuoso fragment - that comes right at the end of "Birdland", their version of the jazz hit Joe Zawinul wrote and recorded with Weather Report for the album Heavy Weather. The lyrics are by singer Jon Hendricks, who has made a lucrative career from clothing tricky jazz phrases in apposite words. This is straightforward enough when you're fitting "Bop was king" or "'Trane came too" to the three-note motifs of the chorus, but requires a very particular - some would say perverse - talent when it comes to finding lyrics that match the melodic hoop-jumping and complex rhythmic hopscotch of a jazz solo.

In this case, the words are broadly about the New York jazz club Birdland, which took its name from the bebop revolutionary Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. The solo at the end - sung, I think, by Cheryl Bentine - is all the more impressive for being thrown away as the track fades into silence (or the surface noise of my vinyl version). The words don't read well on the lyric sheet, but phrases such as "Music is good, music is better than good" somehow make sense of the structural and rhythmic development of Zawinul's solo, followed by the faster "All y'gotta do is lend an ear", eventually leading to the impossibly, gloriously fast "How y' gonna figure out/ A way t' bring it all about amid a/ Lot o' other music on/ The scene, know what I mean?/ How y' gonna separate the music from the scene ...", all following the tumbling rhythmic curves of Zawinul's original synthesiser solo.

If Manhattan Transfer irritate some people, it is because their confident musicality and virtuosity don't so much go over their heads as ricochet unnoticed (or unappreciated) around the room. The four musicians of Manhattan Transfer never worried about the sort of "authenticity" that earnest rock (and now dance) fans demand of their heroes. Their cheerful acceptance of theatrical artifice - changing costumes and performance to suit a vast and scholarly library of vocal styles that included doo-wop, big- band swing, Sixties girl groups and straight Broadway belters - made them a better example of musical post-modernism than Frank Zappa.

Yet it's a double bluff, because despite the showy surface, Manhattan Transfer are musical purists and perfectionists; they know that music is about notes and harmonies and the dramatic organisation of sound. Maybe "How y'gonna separate the music from the scene?" is a profound question.

How do we separate the music from all the romantic and trivial rubbish routinely spouted about every "scene", whether it's the current club scene, "Les Six", or the "New York scene" of John Cage and his mates. Context is important, but we can easily be diverted. Ultimately, the music is in the music. All you gotta do is lend an ear.