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With a Sense of Swing, Annie Ross Is Still Weaving Her Spell

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Annie Ross has been Pirate Jenny in “The Threepenny Opera,” she performed with Richard Gere in “Yanks,” and she acted and sang in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.” When she was 8, she appeared in a “Little Rascals” short singing a jazz rendering of “Loch Lomond,” and when she was 11, she was Judy Garland’s sister in “Presenting Lily Mars.”

But ask a jazz fan about Annie Ross and the immediate response undoubtedly will be, “Yeah, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.” Because for a few remarkable years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the English-born Ross joined Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks in a vocal trio that became an instant jazz classic--arguably one of the most admired vocal ensembles in jazz history.

Their first recording, “Sing a Song of Basie,” established vocalese--the process of replicating jazz instrumental passages with word--as an important form of jazz expression. Although the trio never got together again (Lambert died in a freeway accident in 1966) the influence of L,H&R; has persisted in the work of the Manhattan Transfer and dozens of other vocal ensembles.

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Ross makes one of her intermittent Southland appearances Sunday night at the Ford Amphitheatre with Joe Williams in a program titled “Bebop Heaven on Earth.” Her program will cover many of the standards she loves to sing, but there won’t be a lot of the scat singing that characterized L,H&R.;

“Scat singing is brilliant the way Jon Hendricks does it,” she says. “And I can do it, but I prefer not to. It’s wonderful when it works on your ear--the way Jon does it--but there are few people who can make it sound right. When Jon does it, it’s like he becomes the instrument.”

Ross will, however, undoubtedly sing the song that has provided her with an unexpected pop world following--"Twisted.” Recorded by Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler and others, it is a quirky tale (“Instead of one head, I’ve got two!”) told to a melody originally improvised by saxophonist Wardell Gray.

“I love to hear the different versions,” Ross says. “The strangest one I’ve heard was by a girl named Crystal Waters, and she did it as a kind of hip-hop, homeless woman. And you’d never have known it was ‘Twisted.’

“It’s funny what can happen to something after you write it. When I first did ‘Twisted,’ it was really the title that suggested all the lyrics to me. But people consequently took the ‘Twisted’ title to heart--and maybe some of the lyrics, too--and I used to get reviews that talked about the ‘twisted brain’ or the ‘twisted mind’ of Annie Ross.”

But the only thing twisted about Ross, who turns 68 the day before the Ford program, has been the circuitous pathways she has taken through a variety of entertainment areas, from theater to film to music.

“I love to do theater work,” she says, “because it’s very immediate, the reaction you get. And I love doing film work because it can take you anywhere. But singing jazz is my main thing, and it touches everything.

“I always feel that if you’re working with good actors, on stage or in a film, it’s kind of like playing with a great rhythm section. Because the better the actor, the better the rhythm is. It’s like you hit a ball and they hit it back. Everything has a rhythm of its own.”

Ross came to musical maturity in the ‘50s, during a time when the jazz world was overflowing with now-legendary names. Billie Holiday was a lifelong friend, and she has a son with drummer Kenny Clarke.

“It was a wonderful time,” she recalls. “When I went to Paris in the ‘50s there was a great exodus of black musicians from America. And I was blessed to be friends with Kenny Clarke and James Moody and others who really schooled me. They would play chords for me and say, ‘OK, sing the chords down.’ I always had a good ear, but they introduced me to different chord changes that were going on at the time that just opened up a whole new world for me.”

Given that kind of world-class jazz perspective, she takes a somewhat reserved view of the current jazz scene.

“I think it’s hard for the younger players today,” she says, “because there are so few great veteran players around. I grew up in a time when you had all these wonderful artists around and you could go hear them in person. But today’s youngsters can only hear this music on recordings or videos. And it’s very sad. They have wonderful chops, but they haven’t heard any of the originals.”

But she is very specific about what she feels is at the heart of good jazz singing. Surprisingly, perhaps because her innate sense of swing and her ear for harmony are so strong that she can take them for granted, it is the words rather than the music that she stresses.

“Words are very important to me,” Ross says. “I can’t sing inane words. People have come to me and said, ‘I never liked the lyric to “Lush Life” until I heard you sing it. Now I know what it’s all about.’ That’s how important the words are.

“And now, since my next project is a children’s album on the Juniper label, I’ve started doing ‘Jeepers, Creepers.’ And you know what? The words are fabulous. But everyone dismisses it as a song that Louis Armstrong sang to a horse in a movie. And I’m doing things like ‘Glow Worm’ and ‘It Had to Be You'--simple songs, but you can get so much out of them if you really work the lyrics.”

Then, concluding with a slight chuckle, Ross adds, “Tell the story. It’s as simple as that. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do, whether I’m acting or singing. I’m a storyteller.”

BE THERE

“Bebop Heaven on Earth” with Annie Ross, Joe Williams and the Gerald Wiggins Trio (with saxophonists Lanny Morgan and Med Flory and trumpeter Conte Candoli). The John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Sunday, 8:30 p.m. $20 and $25. (213) 461-3673.


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