Vocal Artistry

Malaysian Tour 2008
by Faridul Anwar Farinordin

Jazz singer Anita Wardell gives the lowdown on scatting, a type of complex vocal acrobatics which involves more than just singing a few lines over the melody. In jazz music, scat and be-bop don’t make it as big as its cousins, the big band sound and swing, which have crossed over to the mainstream music.

Featuring a smaller ensemble of musicians, the singing technique, using nonsense syllables (“ba-da-bidi-boop-boop-bi-dap”, thus the name be-bop) relies heavily on improvisation and stretches the vocalist’s true artistry. One thing for sure, scatting is more than just mimicking the sound of the instruments like the trumpet and the saxophone.

Anita Wardell, recipient of BBC Jazz Awards, is one such rare talent. She is now in Kuala Lumpur for a series of performances at Alexis Bistro Ampang in KL. Describing the vocal artistry, she said it is more than just “singing a few lines over the melody, with shoo-bee-doos here and there, which I call easy scatting.”

She continued: “If you really want to do it properly, you have to study the chord changes and the harmony exactly like the musicians do. I practise between two and three hours a day, finding new ways around the chord changes.”

“It’s a form of communication between you and your band members. The notes you sing dictate the scat syllables. It’s a lot of hard work and until today, I am still learning,” she said when met prior to her show last week.

“I first heard scatting by two girls when I was 17 at a music school. I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. At that time I had no clue what it was. I asked the music teacher and she said it would involve a very long, hard road.”

At the KL show, copies of her new album Noted are also being sold to the audience. She has recorded four albums in the past (available on, including If You Never Come to Me (2004), Until the Stars Fade (2002), Straight Ahead (1999) and Why Do You Cry? (1999). Watching her scatting was listening to complex vocal acrobatics of a different kind. When she was not tackling the scales in lightning speed, she projected a singing voice that was comforting, warm and flowed with ease and earnestness.

“My next project is a collection of instrumental compositions by British jazz musicians, where I will be adding the vocal parts. Some of them have never been recorded before and I am very excited. I will probably record them later in the year.” Born in Guildford, Britain, Wardell and her family emigrated to Australia where she grew up captivated by movie musicals on TV namely by Rodgers and Hammerstein (The Sound of Music, The King & I, Oklahoma!) and Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate).

She also listened to her father’s collection of big band albums by jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Naming Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Murphy, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter and Jon Hendricks as her vocal inspirations, she was also inspired by the works by Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Wardell attended Adelaide University in South Australia and Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She is now regularly featured in festivals and jazz clubs around Britain and Europe. Wardell is also a sought-after vocal teacher for aspiring scat and be-bop artistes around the world.

“Most are working singers who have their own bands who are interested in honing their craft further in jazz singing, phrasing, style and improvisation,” she said.

On the steady increase of younger jazz singers in today’s mainstream music, she said it’s a good sign that the industry is better acknowledging the genre.

“Artistes like Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble have changed people’s perceptions on the music. Each of them specialises on a different style of jazz – and that’s a good thing. It won’t be long before other forms of jazz will be heard on a wider scale as well.”