I’m starting a new little series where I explore the different shapes of voices in jazz music. The idea came to me after I was repeatedly blown away by the additional value brought to the table by the simple sound that is the human voice. During this series I’ll pick some music pieces, talk about the vocals in it and, hopefully, by the end we will have a better understanding of this phenomenon.
Looking back, I think there is a trend of me shifting towards instrumental music rather than vocal-heavy music. I have some explanations as to why. One being that instrumental music might be more likely (in my experience as a listener) to be improvised. A more complex and frankly more interesting explanation is that singing often distracts from everything else that’s going on in a song. Now let me explain. Just like we humans have a stronger visual perception of certain human features, we are also wired to value human voices over other sounds. As soon as you hear a voice in a predominantly instrumental piece your attention shifts and everything else moves into the background. Which brings me to the first piece of evidence: This Is Honda by the Takehiro Honda Trio.
This fine recording was released in 1972 and features renditions of six jazz standards. There is really nothing special about this if it was not for the occasional singing in the background (first time at around 54 seconds in “You Don’t Know What Love Is”), supposedly by one of the acting musicians. If you listen at low volume you might not even hear it, but when you do it changes the music. It gives the whole thing more depth, more meaning. The little climax at 3:50 , for example, has much more emotional weight because of that smokey-voiced bellowing. How could it not? No chord progression or musical instrument can communicate emotion like the human voice. And while it is literally the only thing that is truly in the background you kind of forget everything else going on. This recording would have went right past me if it wasn’t for the singing forcing me to be much more attentive.
Still, I can listen to hundreds of songs of jazz trios backing a singer and don’t care like I did for this. And as I hinted earlier, to me, vocals are often even unwanted distraction from an amazing backing band. Maybe it is the subtlety. Maybe it is the low volume. Maybe it’s the sparsity. I don’t know exactly what it is that they are doing right but it has something to do with the use and execution of vocals.