My neighbor and friend Diéry Prudent is working on a documentary on the bebop saxophonist and flutist James Moody, best known for his 1949 recording “Moody’s Mood For Love.” It’s an improvised solo over the changes to “I’m In The Mood For Love,” one of those off-the-cuff jazz solos that came out so tightly structured as to stand on its own as a melody. For jazz listeners, “Moody’s Mood” has eclipsed the pleasant but corny tune it was based on. It supports my assertion that jazz arrangements of standards are analog remixes.
“Moody’s Mood” went on to inspire further analog remixing. In 1952, Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Moody’s solo, and King Pleasure recorded them in 1954 with Blossom Dearie. Here’s Moody himself singing the Eddie Jefferson lyrics with Dizzy Gillespie – he sings Blossom Dearie’s part too:
Also, here’s a delightful performance of “Moody’s Mood” from the Cosby Show (sorry, no embedding.)
The vocal version of “Moody’s Mood” inspired a lot of singers, inside and outside of jazz. Jon Hendricks cites it as his central inspiration for the formation of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. The practice of writing lyrics to jazz solos, known as vocalese, is a geeky fringe of an already geekily fringe music. But for me it has a lot of creative value beyond its hipsterish metacommentary. Artists like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross have been crucial to my deeper understanding of jazz. If you want to learn jazz improvisation, the best method is to memorize solos. It’s a heck of a lot easier to memorize them if someone writes lyrics. If the lyrics are witty and clever, like Jon Hendricks’ are, so much the better, since learning solos becomes a fun word game in addition to an act of musical scholarship.
I hear a strong connection between the virtuoso wordplay of vocalese and contemporary hip-hop. I don’t know how many hip-hop MCs were inspired by vocalese. Queen Latifah cites about “Moody’s Mood” as an influence. I assume there must be others. I know that some of the best MCs have jazz training. Rakim Allah talks about having studied jazz saxophone, which you can hear clearly in his phrasing. Vocalese certainly did a lot to steer my attention toward hip-hop. I love traditional jazz vocalists, but the material they have to work with is increasingly dated and lame. Vocalese is more hip and challenging, but it still tends towards the slang and cultural references of the fifties. Hip-hop might not have the melodic and harmonic intricacies of vocalese, but the rhythms and internal rhymes are of a piece, and hip-hop speaks more to the world I live in. I’m hoping that as time goes on, hip-hop and vocalese will converge, and we’ll have our own generation’s equivalent of “Moody’s Mood.” Let’s get to work on that, my fellow musicians.