Kurt Elling describes the style as such: "Although the word 'vocalise' was first applied more strictly to Jon Hendricks' work in big band/multi-voice settings, it quickly broadened through general use to mean any application of a vocally presented lyric based on melodies first recorded by jazz instrumentalists, whether solos -a feat that could only have happened with the advent of recorded sound -the early composers of such lyrics essentially invented a new art form."
Where scat singing uses nonsense words such as "bap ba dee dot bwee dee" in solos, vocalese uses lyrics set to pre-existing instrumental solos. In a 'first wave' of vocalese creation, this sometimes took the form of a tribute to the original instrumentalist, such as Eddie Jefferson's version of "Body and Soul", which featured lyrics about Coleman Hawkins, whose landmark solo on the tune is globally recognized. The word "vocalese" is a play on the musical term vocalise and the suffix "-ese", meant to indicate a sort of language. The term is attributed to jazz critic Leonard Feather to describe the first Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross album, Sing a Song of Basie.
The inventor of vocalese was Eddie Jefferson, whose rendition of Coleman Hawkins's "Body and Soul" became a hit on its own. Pioneers of vocalese include King Pleasure and Babs Gonzales, Jefferson's former dance partner. Pleasure first gained popularity singing Jefferson's vocalese classic "Moody's Mood for Love", based on a James Moody saxophone solo to "I'm in the Mood for Love". However, Elling makes a point to recognize Bee Palmer, who sang lyrics to a Bix Biederbecke and Frankie Trumbauer solo on "Singin' the Blues" as early as 1929.
The best-known practitioners and popularisers are probably Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, consisting of Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert and Annie Ross. Other performers known for vocalese include Bob Dorough, Giacomo Gates, Kurt Elling, Al Jarreau, Mark Murphy, Roger Miller, New York Voices, and The Manhattan Transfer, whose Grammy-winning version of Weather Report's "Birdland" featured lyrics by Jon Hendricks. In 1990, Jon Hendricks released "Freddie Freeloader", a vocalese rendition of the Miles Davis song, which featured Jarreau, George Benson, and Bobby McFerrin.
Joni Mitchell recorded lyrics to Charles Mingus's tunes, with "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" and "Goodbye Porkpie Hat".
- "Kurt Elling - Projects - Lyrics: The Book". KurtElling.com. Retrieved 26 October 2017.
- "What Is Vocalese?". www.Harmonyware.com. Retrieved 20 January 2019.
- "Twisted - Annie Ross and Wardell Grey (Lyrics and Chords)". www.GuntherAnderson.com. Retrieved 20 January 2019.
- Gates, Giacomo. "Jazz Vocalist and Educator". GiacomoGates.com. Retrieved 20 January 2019.