Five for FridayAs a jazz singer, I do a lot of vocal improv onstage. Every time I do so I think of the lengthy history of vocal improv that I'm inheriting. Here are just a few examples of vocal improv I find inspiring and astounding.
1. Ella Fitzgerald "How High The Moon"In the case of jazz it's hard not to talk about the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. She transforms herself from just another singer to a fellow musician on stage. It is captivating and engaging. She performed "How High the Moon" throughout her career. It's worth watching videos of her from early on as well as renditions from when she was older. She constantly changed and shifted her interpretation, bringing fresh ideas to the bandstand up until she was no longer able to perform. Damn, lady!
2. Al Jarreau "Take Five"
Al Jarreau stormed onto the jazz scene in the 70's and brought with him a new style of scatting, one that incorporates vocal percussions. Things I love about this version: the bright sounding Rhodes keyboard, and the command Al has over this song, making it something new and interesting at every moment. It's notable that he's able to convert an instrumental tune (originally Dave Brubeck) into a vocal tune. Something I rarely enjoy in jazz, but this one stands the test of time.
3. Bobby McFerrin "Improvisation"
Bobby McFerrin picked up what Al Jarreau threw down and took it to the edge. Here, he creates a complex composition using only the human voice. He uses the audience to help orchestrate different parts. This frees him to improv widely varying ideas. He turns down melodic paths that are quite unexpected. I heard him once say that when he was a young singer he would practice scales and arpeggios much like a horn player would. Over and over again he would drill the various seven-chords and all of the modes. That kind of focus and determination is noteworthy amongst singers, but the product sings for itself.
4. Amita Sinha Mahapatra "Raga Jaunpuri"
Improvisation was not invented by jazz musicians. The idea of making new musical compositions in the moment is something that probably goes back to our cave ancestry. The traditions of Northern Indian Classical music call for a composition to be stated and then freely interpreted by the performer. Here, Amita Sinha Mahapatra elaborates upon a Raga Jaunpuri by letting herself surrender to the music itself. The effect is trancelike, yet very similar to what jazz musicians eventually also brought to the table.
5. Natalie Dessay "V'adoro Pupille"
While Northern Indian Classical is the one of the oldest currently existing forms of musical improvisation, the practice also extends back to the Baroque era. In Handel's day it was common to include da capo arias in operas. The form of the da capo aria is strikingly similar to the jazz form. The aria "V'adoro Pupille" from Handel's Guilio Cesare has an AABA form. After the aria has been sung as written in it's entirety, also referred to as the head in jazz, the singer reprises the A section but with elaborations. Here Natalie Dessay makes a wide departure from the head with many melismas and as many high notes as possible.