You’ll hear them sometimes on easy-listening records of the ‘50s and ‘60s, theremin-throated songbirds, their voices swooning, wailing and wordlessly calling in a celestial llllaaaahhhhhhhhs. Jungle exotica, easy-listening themes for outer space, atmospheric soundtrack pieces, and lush orchestral confections: these were the native habitats of the wordless vocalist. Sometimes clustered in groups, more often crooning by themselves, their voices were coloratura that hovered somewhere between the South Pacific and the Crab Nebula. A primarily female phenomenon, wordless vocals were a sort of stand-in for the feminine mystique, conjuring tropical siren to green-tinted moon maiden.
There were a few albums that featured the wordless vocalist as a headlining star and soloist, but releases like Mary Mayo’s Street of Dreams (1953) and Leda Annest’s Portrait of Leda (1958) were rare. Mostly the wordless vocalists were talented studio and background singers like Marni Nixon, Patricia (aka Petula) Clark, Loulie Jean Norman and Mayo.
Jackie Gleason used them, as did Les Baxter and Juan Esquivel. And so did this week’s artists. As is sometimes the case here, selections are joined by a shared musical device rather than participation in any musical movement or sub-genre. This week’s selections were the phenomenon of independent minds thinking alike, mostly, but the net effect of was basically the same: instrumental music transformed into space-age reverie.
1. Yusef Lateef, Titoro (Riverside)
The pre-‘70s discography of multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef is one of jazz’s most fascinating and otherworldly. Born in Detroit, and long identified with that city’s post-War jazz scene, Lateef grew up playing tenor saxophone; his early musical apprenticeship would culminate with a stint in Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop orchestra of the late ‘40s. Studies in composition and flute followed, and when Lateef’s own recording career as a leader began in 1957, his eastward proclivities were already intact. The next ten years would produce a singular body of work on jazz labels like Savoy, Riverside, New Jazz, and Impulse.
Yusef Lateef could, and did, play straight ahead with the best of jazz’s heavyweights. It’s his Eastern-themed albums and compositions, however, which represent his most interesting work. From Lateef’s earliest dates, albums like Jazz and the Sounds of Nature, Prayer to the East, Eastern Sounds, Jazz ‘Round the World showcased an interest in African, Asian, and, most importantly, Middle Eastern music. Compositions like “Iqbal” and “Mahaba” were, at the time, essentially unique, the reedman’s unabashed exoticism matched only by his acquisitive tastes in unorthodox solo instruments. In addition to being one of era’s most respected jazz flautists, Lateef blew bassoon and oboe. He blew shenhai and argol, too, with a muezzin’s fervor.
Though always well regarded by his peers, Lateef is, even today, rarely championed by jazz’s critical and historical establishment. It’s no fault of their own, I suppose, but they have long confused exotic with kitschy.
This exotic, Afro-Latin version of Billy Taylor’s “Titoro” (which was cut during the 1961 sessions for Lateef’s The Centaur and the Phoenix album) was only released on 45 in its day.
After a late ‘60s switch to Atlantic Records, Lateef’s records were marketed to a younger audience with great crossover success but less originality. Yusef Lateef is today long retired from the commercial record business. At the age of eighty-six, he has remained very productive, dividing his time between academia, composition and his own record label, YAL.
2. Rita Moss, Daydream (Rozell)
A Los Angeles-based pianist and singer, Rita Moss began her recording career as a pop and jazz soloist in the mid-‘50s, but would release material only sporadically thereafter. She was pictured on her first album (1956’s forgotten Introducing Rita Moss) singing while simultaneously playing, one hand on each, piano and bongos. A later stretch at Los Angeles-based Dot Records produced three late ‘60s albums with Moss singing in lusher orchestrated pop territory. It would be Moss’s sung theme to 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby (her vocals are heard only in the movie, I believe) and a smallish cult hit the same year, “Just a Dream Ago,” that represent her lasting claim to fame.
Then there is this obscurity, likely recorded in the early ‘60s, and produced in Hollywood, mood machine to the world. “Daydream,” a Duke Ellington original, has a strange, formless beauty in Moss’s hands, a blank canvas for whatever shadowy fantasy we want to project upon it.
3. Big Jox Orchestra, Cut-A-Loose (Valencia)
“Cut-A-Loose” lacks a certain refined musicianship, but makes up for it with sheer beatnik insouciance. There but for the grace of wordless vocals go thee: this might have been just another sloppy jazz 45.
With infamous producer and record impresario Leo Austell’s writer credit here, it can be reasonably adduced that “Cut-A-Loose” was recorded in Chicago. Otherwise, we’re dealing here with a mystery group, a group that will, I suspect, always remain so. No matter how many times we google “big” and “jox” together over the coming decades.
Everything about “Cut-A-Loose” suggests an early- to mid-‘60s release. Again, total speculation.