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

The Manhattan Transfer mainstay chooses 7 timeless tunes

The Four Freshmen
The Boswell Sisters

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

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”


(Brunswick, 1932)

These three white girls from New Orleans, Connee, Vet and Martha, had an impeccable vocal blend, but it was really the inventiveness of their vocal arrangements, with their changing modalities and tempos and Connee’s gorgeous leads, that got me. As heard on this take of the Ellington standard, they also seemed to have an almost psychic connection that gave them the ability to scat together. Connee 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.

“It’s a Blue World”


(Capitol, 1952)

To my ears, the Freshmen’s distinctive sound can mostly be credited to the top voice of Bob Flanigan and the vocal arrangements of Dick Reynolds. On this track the harmony is close, which makes their collective sound so warm and distinctive. And I love how they use the technique of coming in and out of unison into harmony.

“My Sugar Is So Refined”

Suddenly It’s the Hi-Lo’s (Columbia, 1957)

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 into the instrumental concept-the great little classical interlude, for instance, which bookends the piece-is flawless.

“One O’Clock Jump”

Sing a Song of Basie (ABC-Paramount, 1957)

Lambert, Hendricks & 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 recording 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.

“Groovin’ High”

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

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

“The Fool on the Hill” 

A Capella [sic] (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 a cappella work, like this rendition of the Beatles song. They utilized the studio as an instrument and overdubbed their vocals to create richly textured vocal landscapes.

“Spread Love”

Take 6 (Reprise, 1988)

The marriage of Gene Puerling-esque voicings and the spirit and rhythms of the church produced the groundbreaking 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 Puerling and the Singers Unlimited) and was completely blown away by their concepts for writing and arranging for voices.

Originally Published