What is vocalese, anyway? Here's how Kurt Elling describes it, as heard on Jamie Cullum's radio program for BBC Radio 2. (The link will be live through March 8, 2011. Jamie introduces Kurt at around 19:50.)
Vocalese is a subset of lyric writing and poetry that is unique to the jazz idiom. Vocalese is created in this way: One falls in love with an instrumental recording--a saxophone solo, piano solo, or bass solo. One transcribes the solo. One writes a lyric to fit the contours of that which was improvised for the recording. Then one learns to sing that melody as the new melody for the composition. So, if Bird played [Kurt scats a few bars from "Billie's Bounce"] and then Eddie Jefferson wrote:
I've overlooked so many things/Through the years, through my tears, through my fears/And then I went and opened my eyes...
And it proceeds like that. And it's a joy, and it's very difficult, and few have attempted it, Jon Hendricks being the greatest of jazz lyricists, Eddie Jefferson, Annie Ross, King Pleasure. A few people after then have done some very, very high quality work, and it's one of the things that I like to keep alive. It could only have happened with the advent of recorded sound, because before that time, if somebody improvised something, it was just lost to the wind, and it was gone. So it's an exciting field because there's a lot of open terrain.
Keep listening to hear performances of "Nature Boy," "Samurai Cowboy," and "Moonlight Serenade," recorded live in the BBC's Maida Vale studios. These live recordings are special. As much as I enjoy Elling's many recordings, including the very polished new release The Gate, he is most magical, most convincing, and warmest live.