Down for Double

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“We took a long vacation,” Jon says.

“Yeah, 36 years,” Annie adds.

Except for a brief reunion in the mid ‘80s, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross hadn’t sung the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross classics together since 1962. Hendricks worked as a singer and songwriter. Ross also sang, but she worked more in the movies as an actress. And tragically, Dave Lambert was killed in a 1966 auto accident.

But in their prime, Hendricks, Ross and Lambert perfected and popularized vocalese, the art of singing lyrics to jazz instrumentals. On their 1957 album Sing A Song Of Basie, they not only sang lyrics to the heads and solos, they vocally recreated entire arrangements. Hendricks sang saxophone, Lambert filled in as trombone counterpoint and Ross provided the trumpet voice of Buck Clayton.

In total, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross recorded six albums between 1957 and 1962. Ever since they’ve continued inspiring generations of jazz singers, such as Manhattan Transfer, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin and New York Voices.

And now Hendricks and Ross have come back as a twosome. Their Jan. 26 opening night at the Blue Note in New York was extraordinary: “Down For Double,” “Come On Home,” “Centerpiece,” “Cloudburst.” Hearing those songs again by those voices was thrilling, and one could almost hear the audience, in the heads and their hearts, singing along.

I’ve rarely felt emotion in the audience and from the stage like your opening night.

Annie Ross: That’s a big statement, because you’ve seen everybody.

Dave Lambert is gone, but he’s up there with you.

Jon Hendricks: We’ve always missed Dave before now, but never so much as he’s missed now. We have Paul Meyers, the guitarist, playing his lines, to give us a sound like he’s there.

Dave will always be a presence in your lives. When you first came together to rehearse, the emotions must have been extreme, to be singing again with the other voice that you haven’t sung with in so long, only Dave’s voice isn’t there.

JH: We did all those things with three voices, and we could’ve used at least another one, but how were we going to do these things with two? But when we started singing…

AR: Yeah!

JH: It was like everything was there. It was amazing. I don’t know how it happened.

AR: It was weird, wasn’t it?

JH: The music has a strength of its own.

Do you have memories, flashbacks to moments when you sang these songs all those years ago?

JH: Oh, yes.

AR: And not only that. I’ll remember, “Oh, I used to take a breath right there. It helps me on the next note.”

JH: And you hear lines that you actually forgot. We’re trying to do Dave’s solos whenever possible.

AR: And you don’t get any rest. You’re off of one solo and into another solo, and don’t forget that little things that goes there.

I only heard Dave Lambert on the records, but I’ve always felt that he was the flat-out best scat singer ever. He could improvise vocally like the greatest instrumentalists.

JH: Dave was the single voice who took scat singing from the realm of Louis Armstrong into bop.

AR: I didn’t know until Ira Gilter told me that Dave recorded an album where he would scat and then leave the room for whoever was listening to the record to scat the next eight bars, a sort of “Scatting Minus One.”

What’s the definitive legend of how Lambert and Hendricks came together with Ross?

AR: I was over at Bob Bach’s house. Bob and I were just schmoozing, and he asked me if I knew Dave Lambert. I said that I’d met him very briefly, and he said, “Well, why don’t you stick around, because he’s coming over with a guy called Jon Hendricks, and they have an idea to make a record with words to Count Basie instrumentals, and since you’ve done ‘Twisted,’ it might be interesting to hear.” Dave came over with Jon, they put on the Basie record and I sang along with it. I thought it was all right, and that was that.

JH: Dave and I, and whoever else had ears at the time, knew that Annie had done “Twisted” and “Farmer’s Market.” Annie was hip to vocalese before anybody that we knew. We were going to have these Dave Lambert Singers, about 13 singers, and we figured, Why don’t we put Annie among them? Annie was hip to what was going on, and when these other singers don’t show the right idea, she could be there to say, “Hey, it’s like this!” We figured she’d be a great help to us, because these singers just didn’t dig Basie.

AR: Dave asked me to come down and coach the female singers for the Basie feel, and I said to myself, “Is he out of his mind?”

JH: As we were afraid of, in the studio these people were a disaster. They didn’t understand.

AR: They hit all the notes.

JH: But they didn’t have any of the subtleties or the nuances to be able to approximate the Basie sound. This was Creed Taylor’s debut in the music business, and his job was on the line. In desperation, he asked, “What should we do?” Dave, speaking up like the genius he was, said, “Let’s multitrack. We’ll use Annie; and Annie, Jon and I will multitrack.”

AR: And we said…

JH: “What’s multitrack?”

AR: I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was saying yes to everything then.

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