Giacomo Gates left a life of construction work in Alaska, and the art form of vocalese is all the healthier because of it. Possessing one of the more interesting resumes among jazz people, Gates was always interested in music, but he found adventure and a change of climate in Alaska. Even there, he continued to sing as an avocation. Eventually, Sarah Vaughan, appearing in Fairbanks, encouraged Gates to return to the East Coast if he were to pursue a career in music. He did that, switching career paths in his forties. Slowly gather steam, Gates' career involved recording with some stellar backup groups on, first, Blue Skies in 1995 and then Fly Rite in 1998. Established now as a music educator and nationally recognized performer, Gates has found fulfillment in hipster-like scat singing and vocalese, more in the wild-man tradition of King Pleasure or Eddie Jefferson than in the cooler intellectual version now espoused by Kurt Elling.
Gates chose the songs of Centerpiece with care, matching to the music his affinity for story-telling and his talent for scatting. At the same time, he pays tribute to the few innovators of the form by reinterpreting some of their early recordings, like King Pleasure's putting-of-words to Illinois Jacquet's famous solo of "All Of Me" or Eddie Jefferson's vocalese version of "Lester Leaps In." Not only does Gates sing the music, but also he inhabits it. With a burnished baritone, Gates adopts the attitude implied by the lyrics of the songs. In the rarely-heard-any-more "I Told You I Love You, Now Get Out" (one of the early hits by The Soft Winds before they wrote the immortal "Detour Ahead"), Gates concludes the command of the song's title, "Now Get Out," with a shout. Like Eddie Jefferson, Gates pleads with a winking spurious innocence or wounded heartsickness, the word "baby," for instance, containing two syllables an octave apart. Gates wrote his own lyrics to "Milestones," adding a philosophical slant to it: "Measure not, 'cause life's so fleeting,/No sense to keep score./Find the joy in every moment,/That's what life is for."
Even though Centerpiece was recorded in the studio, Gates includes informative introductions, providing backgrounds to the origins of the songs and setting their moods. On "Route 66," Gates sets up the scene of songwriter Bobby Troup driving cross-country with Julie London in 1946 during a time when "there were traffic signs, stop light, intersections, crosswalks, pedestrians, liquor stores, drug stores, churches, gas stations -- no mini-malls. This was known as the scenic route." Or on "Hittin' The Jug," Gates, with hang-dog down-and-outness, bids his farewells in a scatted story of separation to the words of King Pleasure: "Gave you money. Comfort too. Loved you only./Only you dear./But you didn't care a fig/about me./All you wanted was/to have your fun without me./Oh my darling, /how could you hurt me so/when all I did was love you./Oh, what a terrible terrible feeling" -- all sung to the notes of Gene Ammons' immortal solo.
One of the saxophone masters who inspired some of the classic vocalese renditions is still with us: James Moody, who seemed to attract the leading practitioners of the form, like Eddie Jefferson or Babs Gonzales. It was Moody's solos to "I'm In The Mood For Love" and "Lester Leaps In" that inspired Jefferson to write the whimsical words. Gates includes some of these on Centerpiece, as well as Jon Hendricks' classic lyrics to "Sweets" Edison's "Centerpiece" and Gonzales' for Charlie Parker's "Ornithology." But the combination of humorous life experiences with the intervals of horn-led improvisation, vocalese, was always harder than it seemed. Hence: so few performers. With only Jon Hendricks remaining of the rare group of male vocalese masters, it's gratifying to have Giacomo Gates back from Alaska for good to continue the vocalese tradition for the current generation, reminding us of its ability to delight and its vitality. The concern for its perpetuation, though, seems to be the conversion of recently recorded jazz solos, such as Houston Person's or Tom Harrell's, to vocalese interpretations, lending the same sense of immediacy to vocalese that it offered in the 1950's.