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Jazz Review

Hendricks Still King of Vocal Styling

April 17, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jon Hendricks didn't invent the idea of writing lyrics to improvised jazz melodies, usually described as vocalese. But--with Dave Lambert and Annie Ross in the classic jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross--he developed the technique into a format that was imaginative, innovative and commercially successful.

Hendricks has had a long, equally creative career beyond the breakup of the group in 1964 (actually Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan at the time, since Ross left in 1962). Despite a string of first-rate recordings, including 1990's "Freddie Freeloader" (Denon) with Bobby McFerrin, George Benson, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer, he still tends to be viewed in the context of L, H & R.

Hendricks' opening-night set at the Jazz Bakery on Tuesday, however, quickly demonstrated that the 76-year-old singer is a versatile artist with a surprisingly wide range of musical skills. His nearly two-hour program ranged from ballads and up-tempos to bossa nova tunes, scat singing and, yes, a few vocalese numbers.

The ballads and bossa novas were the most surprising numbers. Hendricks' roughhewn voice does not immediately seem to be a particularly efficient medium for tunes such as "September Song" or "Estate." But he sang them with an intensity and a deep understanding of the balance between words and music that transcended the limited timbres of his sound.

Hendricks was in more familiar territory with the faster numbers, bringing his inimitable sense of drive and swing to an array of tunes: "Get Me to the Church on Time," "Stockholm Sweetnin', " "Mood Indigo" and "Bye, Bye Blackbird" among them. And, in a bow to his vocal ensemble roots, he brought out his wife, Judith Hendricks, to join him in playful romps through "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "Li'l Darling."

A youthful but extraordinarily talented trio--pianist Eric Lewis, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Eric Allen--provided appropriately versatile backing. And, in an Art Tatum-esque cameo and elsewhere, the 24-year-old Lewis revealed a musical maturity that identified him as a young talent to watch.

*

* Jon Hendricks & Friends at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City, (310) 271-9039. $22 cover tonight and Saturday at 8:30 and 10 p.m., and $20 cover Sunday at 8 and 9:30 p.m.

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