Blue Note Jazz Festival at the Blue Note on Monday, June 27.
My brother once told me that he learned about the history of jazz by reading the current weekly listings in The New Yorker. Nostalgia is such a powerful force that many of the greats of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s are still performing, and the “Goings On About Town” section dutifully encapsulates the upcoming gigs, briefly explaining why the artists matter and what their big hits were. The past is constantly made present.
Of course, the past is often past its prime, as well, so if you’re not nostalgic yourself, if it’s all new to you, those concerts can be a bit awkward. You can’t very well expect a ninety-year-old man to perform with the stamina and vigor of a forty-year-old, but going too far along that train of thought can begin to feel condescending. Live performance is undoubtedly special, but sometimes you have to wonder if you’d be better off just listening to the classic recordings.
I have to admit these thoughts were running through my head as I listened to acclaimed, award-winning vocalists Jon Hendricks (eighty-nine years old) and Annie Ross (eighty-one). I suspect their breath support wasn’t always somewhat erratic, their tone wasn’t always so gravelly, but hey, a singer’s body is his instrument, and Hendricks and Ross are in their eighties. It might sound condescending, but they are amazing for their age.
And as I listened closer, I also began to hear the qualities that haven’t diminished with age, the qualities that are amazing, period. The between-song patter between the two vocalists might have been loopy and digressive to the extent that they frequently seemed to have forgotten their own points, but once they started to sing, they were razor-sharp, their well-honed performing skills immediately apparent. The nuanced phrasing, the expressive turns, the connection with the text, the connection to the audience—all that made the performance worthy of more than nostalgic appreciation, especially since the text is, apparently, what they are best known for. Hendricks and Ross pioneered the genre of vocalese, writing creative, witty texts for jazz instrumental numbers.
I suspect vocalese can be unbearably cheesy when done poorly, but Hendricks and Ross, as lyricists, pull it off with great sensitivity and sophistication. Moreover, they have fun with it. Their text-setting tends to be syllabic rather than melismatic, often resulting in rapid-fire, hyper-enunciated lyrics, which they deliver with great dramatic flourish. Aged though they might be, they still perform with enough verve to make me want to dig up one of their old recordings, which is, I think, the best compliment that any musician of any age could ask for.