I want desperately to make you want to own this album. Not only is it on the short list for my favorite album, but it’s, perhaps, the album on this list you’re least likely to find on your own. I was introduced to it a number of years ago from a friend who has a master’s degree in Jazz Vocals. It was spring of 2000. She puts this album on a stereo while we’re eating breakfast together, and I’m completely blown away. I bought the album as soon as I could afterward. I have not yet met another person who has even heard of this band. It is for that reason, that I want, fervently, passionately, hysterically, to impress on you how good this album is.
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were a jazz vocal trio, consisting (quite obviously) of Dave Lambert, Jon Hendrick, and Annie Ross. Their style of music is called “vocalese”, and consists of singing the music played by an instrument. Vocalese differs from scat in that scat consists of nonsense words (“bap ba doo dweeba da habba da bop da dop” and the like, according to Wikipedia) whereas vocalese consists of actual words forming phrases, forming lyrics. No one was better at this than LH&R.
LH&R formed in 1957 and recorded three albums before getting signed to Columbia Records. The Hottest New Group in Jazz was their first Columbia album. The ten tracks on it are unmistakably brilliant, several of them becoming standards, and the rest becoming inimitable masterpieces.
The opening track, “Charleston Alley”, is a medium tempo grooving swing tune, with Annie Ross take the lead in one of her lower registers, backed by a bumping bassline and snare drum accenting her vocals, and a trumpet counterpoint. When she sings to us that we can “boogie on Charleston Alley”, the boys jump in to take the low notes, and Ross soars to a blazing falsetto. After the chorus, Dave Lambert takes the lead, while Ross and Hendricks harmonize together, seemingly striking the music from above while Lambert floats it from below. The song is stunning in its execution, and yet, it’s the closest to a “traditional” jazz tune as the album comes.
This is a trio that understands the element of fun in jazz. The album’s third track, “Twisted”, is a playful rendition of the Wardell Grey melody. The lyrics bounce along a first-person perspective about a woman who might be somewhat batty: “Why should I feel sorry if they just couldn’t understand the reasoning and the logic that went on in my head?/ I had a brain, it was insane/Oh they used to laugh at me when I refused to ride/ On all those double decker buses/All because there was no driver on the top?”
Just because they’re laid-back and fun-lovin’ doesn’t mean they won’t blow, sometimes, too. On both “Cloudburst”, and “Everybody’s Boppin'”, Lambert Hendricks and Ross show off their blazing fast speed. On the former, it’s Jon Hendricks who takes the lead, rifling through lyrics so fast they’re barely decipherable, and on the latter, the three trade scats, each voice seemingly impersonating a specific instrument, if this were a more traditional lineup. What separates their speed from other notoriously fast bands like, say, Bad Brains, is their immaculate rhythm. Notes are coming as fast as your brain can recognize them, and still the rhythm is complex, varied, and incredibly impressive. Both songs are preceeded by slower pieces, and the result is the impossible effort of keeping up and singing along with the lead vocalists.
The slower pieces are demonstrations of the way vocal interplay should be done. “Bijou”, is a quaint sort of love song with each member of the trio taking lead vocal at different points. “Sermonette” shows off Annie Ross throughout most of the song, and has a lengthy solo from the excellent trumpeter, Harry “Sweets” Edison. When the group comes back from the interlude, the harmony and underlying melodies are absolutely golden.
One of the best albums ever made. Bar none.