“There I go, there I go, there I go, there I go…”
Vocalese is the art of singing a song constructed of lyrics set to the pitches of a previously-improvised instrumental solo in jazz. That such a thing as vocalese exists is, itself, a marvel of human creativity. When executed well–by its originators and master practitioners in the early, hep days of its development in the mid 1950s–it captures several very different facets of genius.
It’s possible that King Pleasure wasn’t the originator of this form, but his early recordings on Prestige– especially “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Parker’s Mood”–remain two of the most popular recordings in this idiom. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross would achieve more fame in the early 60s with cutting edge-records that, when listened to today, really sound fun while being artistically uncompromising. Hopefully this little guide will explain vocalese, and open the door for you to all of those great records as well.
In order to dig what’s so special about this innovation–abstracting and deepening while building on already-created verbal and musical forms of expression–it’s worth getting the original song in your ears first, and following along as we get farther away from the original.
“I’m in the Mood for Love” is a pop song from 1935, written by Jimmy McHugh and lyricist Dorothy Fields for the mostly-forgotten pre-Code Raoul Walsh comedy, Every Night at Eight. Like so many other songs destined to be standards, it entered the jazz universe with a performance the same year by Louis Armstrong.
In 1946, the Nat King Cole Trio recorded what might be the most famous vocal version, one which remains one of his signature records. This is the one that comes to mind immediately when even thinking of the “I’m in the Mood for Love” lyrics. Armstrong’s rough edges were sanded-down, and romance and intimacy took the place of winking mischief inherent in Pops’ version. In Cole’s hands, the song was translated into a real love song–but, because of the singer’s genius delivery–it still swings warmly and beautifully.
A few years later, in 1949, tenor sax-playing bopper James Moody found himself in Sweden. Playing gigs with a local band, and given an alto sax to play with for a very short time, he went to the studio to record a few sides. He ended up cutting several classic records on October 12 in Stockholm. At the same session, he reworked songs like, “Three Bop Mice,” “I’m in the Mood for Bop” and “The Flight of the Bopple Bee.” This wasn’t unheard of at the time– Monk, Bird, Dizzy and others had been doing this with uptempo standards for the last half-decade in New York City. But all these jagged new jazz anthems sounded fresh and avant-garde because of their jagged melodies and very fast tempos.
But what if you could fashion a new melody over ballads? Moody played his own new, improvised melody over the “I’m in the Mood for Love” chord changes. And it was stunning. Back in New York, the Prestige label bought the tapes and released the record in 1949 as the b-side to “The Flight of the Bopple Bee”–as you’d guess, a bebop version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee interlude–renamed simply, “The Flight.” The new melody, too, would give Moody writing credit to the song, and it became known as, “Moody’s Mood for Love.”
Now we’re getting closer. In 1952, King Pleasure set lyrics to “Moody’s Mood for Love,” James Moody’s originally improvised melody over the “I’m in the Mood for Love” form. He recorded the single for Prestige, really as a novelty. I doubt anyone involved had any idea how the conception would eventually take off. But the record was hip as anything. For the first time, listeners could hear all the harmonic quirks and sonic signatures of bebop in a way they could process and appreciate for melodic content. After all, most people are used to dealing with catchy sung melodies rather than instrumental parts.
Now, in the years since both Moody and King Pleasure released their records, we’ve had several cover versions and performances of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” pushing the creative pile-on towards yet even more abstraction. At this point, several things are being referenced, several chunks of creative information are being synthesized and processed, even without the creator’s intent. Aside from several recordings by singers like Eddie Jefferson, Van Morrison, and several dozen others, Amy Winehouse did a fun, reggae version of “Moody’s Mood for Love” on her album, Frank, in 2003. So naturally, YouTube is full of cover versions of Winehouse– most no doubt oblivious about the song’s lineage.
As a bonus vocalese demonstration, here is King Pleasure singing Charlie Parker’s famous blues, “Parker’s Mood.” First the 1948 recording on Dial from Bird.
King Pleasure’s version was recorded in 1955, a year before Bird’s death, and darkly deals with the alto saxophonists eventual demise and funeral.
For even more King Pleasure, here’s a playlist below.