Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

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At the end of last month, one of the few jazz singers Miles Davis had any time for released his new album at a low-key gig in a Pennsylvania club. But Bob Dorough, who recorded with Davis on 1962's Sorcerer, has a British label, Candid, to thank for a revival of interest in his remarkable (and occasionally rather strange) vocals.

It was as the result of efforts by Jamie Cullum's bassist, Geoff Gascoyne, that 82-year-old Dorough came over to London last year and laid down the tracks for Small Day Tomorrow with Gascoyne and Cullum's drummer, Sebastiaan de Krom. Cullum himself joined Dorough on stage at his last UK gigs in January. So what is it about this singer, who has justly been described as "underexposed and neglected for most of his life", that attracted a pairing as disparate as Miles and young Jamie?

Some consider his voice an acquired taste. All I can say is that I acquired it the first time I ever heard him perform one of his own numbers, "Blue Christmas", with Davis's band. The combination of an almost feminine tone and pitch with a delivery that turns sour and biting at a drop of a beat was, and is, utterly beguiling. Never have the words "fol-de-rol" been uttered with such lack of Yuletide cheer as on this track.

Dorough's work is most likely to be familiar to the wider world through his "Three is a Magic Number", which he wrote for the 1970s ABC television series Schoolhouse Rock. Long before, though, he had made his name with a 1956 album, Devil May Care, the title track of which became a standard, and one covered by many, not least Diana Krall. On Charlie Parker's Yardbird Suite, Dorough demonstrated his facility with vocalese, that fine but difficult art of supplying words or scatting to instrumental jazz lines, while his performance of "Johnny One Note" is definitive.

Prior to that, in the mid-Fifties, he had recorded in Paris with Blossom Dearie, a singer with whom he shares a sound so fragile and soft that one imagines they both could be blown away by the slightest breeze. Dorough differs from Dearie, though, in his possession of a much darker side to his singing, and with age that part of him has become the stronger. You never know when a conversational line will wind up driven through a mincer, turning into a curdling growl or a demented, cackling yelp.

Over the years this has made him a perfect collaborator for Dave Frishberg, with whom he wrote "I'm Hip", and Fran Landesman, whose lyrics grace the new album. It opens with one of their greatest numbers, a tune that should be known to every vocalist but, like so much of Dorough's oeuvre, seems to be the preserve of the few. The sentiments of "Small Day Tomorrow" express the early hours refrain of every late-night carouser desperately seeking the camaraderie of the bar and the solace of the bottle. Tomorrow isn't just another day, says our man, as he looks into yet another double bourbon with day beginning to break; he kids himself that it's a "small day", and takes another slug. It's a miniature masterpiece.

Somehow or other, major success has eluded Dorough, although one hopes that De La Soul's version of "Three is a Magic Number" earned him some dough. He's certainly very grateful to the million-selling Diana Krall for recording "Devil May Care". Also to Jamie Cullum, who has recorded two of his songs, and whose chance meeting with Dorough, at the Oak Room in New York in 2003, led indirectly to this new album on Candid, the label which first signed the now ubiquitous Cullum. Catch Dorough if you can. This self-styled "jazz troubadour" has still got it.