Music: God is in the Details

THE INDEPENDENT'S GUIDE TO POP'S FIDDLY BITS. NO 5: MANHATTAN TRANSFER

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil