by Edward Randell
James Moody, until his death last Thursday at the age of 85, was part of the ever-shrinking pool of survivors from the bebop era, an elder statesman of the sax and former collaborator of Dizzy Gillespie. But his passing has an added significance for the world of vocal music: quite by accident, he set in motion the style known as vocalese.
In 1949, on a trip to Stockholm, Moody recorded a version of the Jimmy McHugh/ Dorothy Fields standard ‘I’m In The Mood For Love’. His inspired improvisation was played on a borrowed alto saxophone instead of his usual tenor (he modestly claimed [link: http://youtu.be/ckxMozZZLzA] that his solo’s distinctive opening phrases were an attempt to “find the notes” on the unfamiliar instrument). Then, a certain Eddie Jefferson had the bright idea of fitting lyrics to Moody’s recorded solo: “There I go, there I go, there I go, there I go Pretty baby, you are the soul who snaps my control…”
King Pleasure and Blossom Dearie were the first to record the lyricized version, and the art form known as vocalese was born. If the lyrics seem familiar, it may be because you’ve heard the Take 6 version with Brian McKnight and Patti Austin. Or perhaps you’ve heard it sung by George Benson and Sarah Vaughan. Or Mark Murphy. Or Van Morrison, Georgie Fame, Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah, Amy Winehouse…
In short, Moody’s improvisation has become more famous than the original tune, and its legacy stretches to all the vocalese writers and singers who followed in the footsteps of Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure. Annie Ross heard it and wrote ‘Twisted’. Jon Hendricks heard it and wrote ‘Four Brothers’, before going on to take vocalese to its highest peak of sophistication with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Over in France, Mimi Perrin (who also died recently) applied the same wit and ingenuity to the French language with her group Les Double Six.
All the hallmarks of the form are already there, however, in ‘Moody’s Mood’. Like all the best vocalese lyrics it tells a story, with a beginning (“There I go, there I go…”) and an end (“James Moody you can come on in, man, and you can blow now if you want to: we’re through”), as well as clearly defined characters (the piano solo becoming a response by Moody’s love interest). When, last month, I was fortunate enough to meet and interview Jon Hendricks in London, he explained the importance of empathy in vocalese writing:
“You try to think of what the soloist would think. You know, it’s good to know him. When I’m writing a solo by Lester Young, I put Lester Young first, his attitude first, and what I say in the solo has got to be what even he might say in the solo. But it’s not anything to do with me. In fact if it has to do with me it’s not really writing Lester Young’s solo. It’s me usurping Lester Young’s solo to spout my own ideas, and who the hell cares about that?”
Therein lies the greatness of ‘Moody’s Mood’: Eddie Jefferson heard a story in Moody’s playing and translated its wit and warmth into words. It is a celebration not just of Moody’s craft as an improviser but the personality that shines through his lines.
After ‘Moody’s Mood’ became a hit, Moody remained closely involved with the world of vocal jazz. He played on recordings by Eddie Jefferson, Les Double Six and the Manhattan Transfer, as well as being a formidable scat singer in his own right. In November, his wife Linda announced that he was battling pancreatic cancer and had decided not to undergo aggressive treatment. He will be missed, that’s for certain – but no less certain is the fact that any night of the year, in a jazz club somewhere in the world, someone is singing “There I go, there I go, there I go, there I go…”
P.S. by Vocal Blog founder Florian Städtler: Isn’t it great to have such fantastic guest bloggers as Edward? As a singer with Thierry Lalo’s Les Voice Messengers he is as great as when writing about the music he loves: Vocal Jazz. We met in London in September and I hope we’ll see each other next January at London A Cappella. I know, Ed would be happy to get in touch with other connoisseurs of vocal music, you can find his contact info at his blog http://toshpit.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter and check out his music at MySpace. Thanks for sharing his wonderful article with your friends and peers all around the world – and post your comments below.
Find below the lyrics of “Moody’s Mood for Love” and be sure to check out the great versions Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure have inspired!