Vocalese explores roots of jazz

Three generations of jazz vocalists team up tonight at The Smith Center to explore "Vocalese."

That includes Jon Hendricks, who – as one-third of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross – helped pioneer the vocalese style in the late ’50s with such tunes as "Twisted."

If you don’t know vocalese, it’s a jazz style in which singers swing lyrics written to complex jazz solos performed by instrumentalists.

Think "Birdland" – which began as a 1977 Weather Report instrumental before it became a 1980 Manhattan Transfer Grammy-winner.

Good thing Manhattan Transfer is on hand for tonight’s concert, the third of five Jazz Roots shows scheduled during The Smith Center’s 2012-13 season.

Also on the program: New York Voices, representing a third vocalese generation.

Jazz Roots producer Larry Rosen describes them as "a follow-up of Manhattan Transfer" who began performing about two decades ago.

Rosen – the "R" in GRP Records – signed New York Voices to his label and calls them "the experts" when it comes to spreading the vocalese gospel to a new generation of jazz students.

Hendricks, now 91, is "kind of the father of this whole concept," Rosen says.

And "concept" is the name of the game when it comes to the Jazz Roots series.

"Vocalese" is the third of five Jazz Roots concerts presented at The Smith Center this season. (Ramsey Lewis and Al Jarreau kicked off the series in April 2012 with "Jazz and Soul," while Sergio Mendes and saxophonist Candy Dulfer headlined "Jazz Meets Funk" last November.)

Two upcoming concerts round out the series’ first Smith Center season: a Feb. 3 tribute to late greats Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams (a longtime Las Vegan), featuring Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel and the Count Basie Orchestra; and an April 26 "American Songbook" celebration.

The series concept began in Miami and has expanded to performing arts centers in five other cities – including Las Vegas, Atlanta and Dallas.

Rosen characterized it as an attempt to "reach out with the widest net" to members of the public who might not be familiar with "a lot of the artists performing," because jazz represents "a relatively small slice" of the music world, he says.

So "we came up with this brand, ‘Jazz Roots,’ " Rosen explains. "It’s the thematic idea underneath this big umbrella," exploring what the Jazz Roots website calls "the musical DNA that connects various communities and peoples, while examining the African-based roots of popular music in the Americas."

Rosen’s recording-industry connections make it easier to assemble the concert lineups, he adds. "With most of these musicians, we’ve worked with them for so many years, we can put them together as a package," Rosen explains. "We have the relationships to do that."

Jazz Roots also extends the musical experience through its Internet site, www.JazzRoots.net, which includes videos of featured performers, providing "more context" for concertgoers, Rosen notes.

"In the Google world, it’s not just a matter of going to a concert," he observes.

"When we bring these artists to a performing arts center" like The Smith Center, some audiences "are kind of discovering something new," Rosen says. "The biggest challenge is to get ’em in the door. The music speaks for itself."

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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