Rumor has it that Louis Armstrong invented scat singing when he dropped the lyric sheet while singing on his recording of Heebie Jeebies in 1925.
Armstrong himself never made such a claim, and it is generally accepted that jazz musicians such as Don Redman and Red Nichols both recorded examples of scat before him.
He was, however, an experimental and innovative singer who fooled around with all sorts of sounds, and improvised with his voice as he did on his instrument.
JD Walter, at the Blue Note Cafe in Hamra until June 14, has a voice nothing like Armstrong’s, but akin to the great man he is an innovative singer for the modern age fooling around with his voice in ways Armstrong never could primarily with the help of a digital effects machine.
The American singer, hailing from Lebanon, Pennsylvania his connection with our part of the world stops there head shaved with earrings dangling, is a versatile and watchable musician in part because his philosophy runs simply that “I am more interested in where jazz is going, not where it’s been.”
So Tuesday night he gave us a sample of what that means, although the usual ensemble cast of the Blue Note band Walid Tawil on drums and Faure Basulto on piano with the new addition of Alex Asmar on contra-bass made it far more difficult for him to shine.
Unused to his arrangements and in the case of Asmar who found himself really pushed to keep up, Walter ended up worrying about the trio almost too much, distracting him from his own performance.
That said, the band managed, loose-limbed though they were, and Walter’s many strengths his dynamism, rousing scatting capability, pitch control and metrical journeying came through and are certainly worth stopping by to hear.
Scatting is a vocal technique where the singer invents a melody on the spot using syllables and phrases instead of words, while following the chord changes.
His jazz phrasing and scatting takes much from the early African-American musicians who first applied scatting to jazz but as is his stated aim, Walter succeeds in pushing things forward creating a post-bop almost electro-vocal of his own making.
Picking up where the language leaves off, Walter communicates feelings and nuances through his voice that words alone cannot express. His phonemic awareness is staggering and his improvisation, demonstrated in his ability to come up with the nonsense (and sense) words of scat, fascinating.
Opening with the standard, Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Walter first demonstrated his ability to use his voice as an instrument, at points mimicking the bass to perfection. His smooth Nat Cole-like interpretation of the lyrics caressed the ears almost as smoothly as the creamy-voiced master.
Beautiful Love began his lesson in scat, as well as demonstrating the soul music in the man. His technique illustrates an obviously deep instrumental knowledge.
Walter, now in his 30s, began singing with his family church choir, before being accepted to sing with the American Boy Choir at Princeton. Later he went to the University of North Texas on a vocal jazz scholarship, becoming a featured soloist on university recordings. Later he went to Amsterdam, in Holland, where he studied with recording artist Deborah Brown. He has released two albums, Sirens in The C-House and Clear Day, a collaboration with Brooklyn master saxophonist and musician Dave Liebman.
It is perhaps, however, his training with Brown and his own personal obsession with that great chanteuse Betty Carter, that makes what he does with his voice unusual for a male singer, and why he has been continually compared to Carter, Nina Simone and others.
On his own composition, entitled It Never Entered My Mind, he uses the voice mixer to demonstrate a vast vocal range, and the influence of Carter instantly appears.
“She is a hero of mine. I had an infatuation with her as much for her music as for the stories about her. I spent years playing with as many musicians as I could find who played with her, over 20 at least, so I could find out everything,” Walter says.
“In many ways I already knew the answers,” he adds.
Autumn Leaves, at the end of the first set, allowed Walter to really go off in an experimental instrumental all his own. Using the digital effects machine via three or four pedals, he stops the band, and sings a bassline, sampling it with a reverb effect.
Then while that bassline continues to play, he sings the melody, again sampling it with echo and adding it in time to the bass. With those two playing over and over he begins his scat, and carries the whole composition for some minutes before Basulto re-engages on keys.
It is a highly personal, creative and unpredictable sound, seamlessly coalescing lyrics, wordless chanting and reshaped melodies into an instrumental resonance.
“I’m not a jazz purist. I am never content with who I am. I used to be a drummer, now I’m a singer,” Walter says.
Though the effects machine could be considered gimmicky, to Walter it is just an example of continuing innovation, and it requires a hell of a lot of discipline and time-control, skills that Walter possesses aplenty.
“I must have toys. I want more,” he says of the mixer, sampler and effects boxes.
Joined during the second set by the National Conservatoire of Music’s sax instructor Tom Hornig on tenor sax for the classic Miles Davis tune All Blues, and that other regular standard Stella By Starlight, Walter clearly feels more free to let go using his voice as a purely musical instrument achieving a wonderful harmonic amalgamation with Hornig’s rich sax sound.
JD Walter is a man full of swing, capable of mixing measured tones with soft, melding words, sliding between meters as the feel of the songs fluctuates. Vocalists such as he don’t make the trip to Beirut often. His two-week stint at the Blue Note deserves a visit.
JD Walter plays at the Blue Note Cafe on Makhoul Street, Hamra, tonight until the June 7 and next week Monday through Saturday