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Artist’s Choice: Janis Siegel on Essential Jazz Vocal Group Performances

Favorites by the Singers Unlimited, the Mills Brothers, Mel Tormé and the Mel-Tones and more

Janis Siegel
Mel Torme
Lambert, Ross, and Hendricks in their prime
Take 6
The Four Freshmen

I have always been a harmony singer at heart. It started with three parts, and quickly worked its way up to four with the Manhattan Transfer. When I first heard five- and six-part harmony, I thought my poor head would explode with joy. There is something magical, emotional and, yes, visceral about voices raised together, singing chords in precision.

The best jazz vocal groups incorporate elements of traditional choral singing, such as blend, intonation and dynamics, but they utilize “jazz voicings” that incorporate higher functions of the chord plus more sophisticated rhythms. I hope you will check out these timeless performances and feel the same thrill.

“The Fool on the Hill”

A Capella (MPS, 1971)

The awe-inspiring voices of the Singers Unlimited-Bonnie Herman, Len Dresslar, Gene Puerling and Don Shelton-weave a vocal tapestry that is unparalleled in modern vocal music. My very favorite stuff is their acappella work. They utilized the studio as an instrument and overdubbed their vocals to create their richly textured vocal landscapes.


“It Happened in Monterey”

Back In Town (Verve Records, 1959)

The Mel-Tones were comprised of Sue Allen, Ginny O’Connor (the future Mrs. Henry Mancini), Bernie Parke and Tom Kenny. To my mind, the relatively short-lived Mel-Tones rank at the top of jazz vocal groups. Mel Tormé did the vocal arrangements, plus sang baritone and lead vocals. Love the clever intersection of the tune “Ramona” into the vocal arrangement.

“One O Clock Jump ”

Sing A Song Of Basie (ABC Paramount, 1957)

Lambert, Hendricks and Ross are, in many ways, the quintessential jazz vocal group: the lyrics and improvisation of Jon Hendricks matched with the vocal arrangements and scatting of Dave Lambert and the trumpet-like precision, vocal flexibility and swing of Annie Ross. This is one of the first great representations of the art of group vocalese singing, and was a model for many groups to come, including the Manhattan Transfer. Also well worth checking out is the record The Hottest Group in Jazz , which features the three-part harmonies of vocal arranger Lambert and much more improvisation from Jon and Dave.

Here is their version of “Cloudburst.”



(Brunswick 02542 [matrix #TB-3456-1], recorded London, December 17, 1937

Decca 1816 [matrix #63830-A], recorded New York, May 20, 1938)

This recording, where no musical instruments of any kind were used except guitar, shows off the Mills Brothers’ exceptional talents for imitating instruments. The timbres of the tuba, trumpet and trombones were recreated using voices as the orchestra. The Mills Brothers, also known as “Four Boys and a Guitar,” swing this Juan Tizol composition hard.


“Groovin’ High”

The Double Six of Paris & Dizzy Gillespie (Phillips, 1963)

Established by Mimi Perrin in 1959, this vocal group contained Ward Swingle and Christiane Legrand, among others. The soprano voices are stratospheric, some doubling Dizzy’s lines. Lalo Schifrin did these vocal arrangements, while Mimi wrote the lyrics, and on this particular selection, she sings the solo. Bebop vocalese at its finest.

Here’s their version of “Meet Benny Bailey.”

“It’s a Blue World”


(Single. Flip side of “Tuxedo Junction,” Capitol #2152, 1952)

To my ears, the Freshmen’s distinctive sound was due to the top voice of Bob Flanigan and the vocal arrangements of Dick Reynolds. The harmony is close, which makes their collective sound so warm and distinctive. I love when they use the technique of coming in and out of unison into harmony. This song was their first single on Capitol Records.


“My Sugar Is So Refined”

Suddenly It’s the Hi-Lo’s (Columbia )

This is from the Hi-Lo’s’ first record for Columbia. Clark Burroughs’ unmistakable lead voice on top is a natural wonder while Gene Puerling’s vocal arrangement pops with humor and innovation. The reharms that Gene does in this arrangement are brilliant and the integration with Frank Comstock on the instrumental concept (the great little classical interlude, for instance, which bookends the piece) is flawless.


“Lullaby Of Birdland” ( Légende du Pays aux Oiseaux)

Blue Stars of France (EmArcy, 1954)

This octet was organized by Blossom Dearie in Paris. The year was 1954. The arranger of this George Shearing composition is none other than Michel Legrand, and singing first soprano, his sister Christiane shows up again. Not a great emphasis on improvising, but rather on a smooth, accessible blend with a French swing.


“Crazy People ”

THE BOSWELL SISTERS (Brunswick, 1932)

These three white girls, Connee, Vet and Martha, from New Orleans were all accomplished instrumentalists in their own right, but some of their greatest records were with the Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang. Being sisters, their vocal blend was impeccable, but it’s really the inventiveness of their vocal arrangements with their changing modalities, and tempos, and Connee Boswell’s gorgeous leads that got to me. They also seemed to have almost a psychic connection that gave them the ability to scat together with just a “head” arrangement in place. Connee herself explained it this way: “We didn’t sing anything straight, the way other groups did. After the first chorus, we’d start singing the tune a little different-you know, with a beat, the way jazz musicians would.” No wonder she was one of Ella Fitzgerald’s favorite singers.


“Spread Love”

Take 6 (Reprise, 1988 )

The marriage of Gene Puerling-esque voicings and the spirit and rhythms of the church produced the groundbreaking soulful sound of Take 6. I met Merv Warren when he and Mark Kibble were working with the vocal group A Special Blend ( the title being an homage to Gene Puerling and the Singers Unlimited) and was completely blown away by their concepts for writing and arranging for voices.


Other exceptional Jazz Vocal Groups, vintage and modern: The original Swingle Singers, the Four Vagabonds, the Merry Macs, Six Hits and a Miss, the Real Group, the Ritz, the New York Voices, Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys, Inner Voices, m-pact, the Idea of North, Rajaton and the Manhattan Transfer.

Originally Published