We already covered a large part of phrasing last week when the focus was on rhythm. Good phrasing definitely locks-in with the rhythmic groove. However, when we're using lyrics we are also telling a story. If you sing the rhythms you see on a lead sheet, you will sound square and inauthentic. One of the things that makes jazz singing so attractive is it's intimacy. If you ever see a truly great singer live, you might feel like they are singing straight to you. One of the ways they do this is by delivering lyrics using rhythms that sound closer to the cadence of spoken language.
Take my example of “All of Me.” What if you were to sing this melody exactly the way it is written on the lead sheet? It definitely wouldn't swing, but it would also sound very formal and not at all personal and intimate. The answer is to deliver the lyric in a way that not only swings, but also takes on the character of spoken language.
Try reading the lyrics to “All of Me” out loud as if you were speaking to someone sitting next to you. How does your spoken rhythm differ from the notated rhythms on the lead sheet? If you're not sure, try reading the lyrics out loud using the rhythms as notated. One difference you might notice is that when we speak, we don't hold vowels for a long time like we do when we are singing. Also, some words or syllables get more stress than others, and other words or syllables are held a little longer. Your goal is to deliver lyrics in a way that is unique and authentic to you while also enhancing the groove of the music.
The great pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn was a master at jazz phrasing, especially on ballads. Watch her performance of “Here's to Life” and observe how she's delivering the lyric. She's not making a big deal out of her beautiful voice. She's delivering the lyric in the most honest and intimate way, and she has the audience in the palm of her hand.
Homework – Take the Ballad that you chose from my 100 Jazz Standards for Singers list. Start by delivering the lyric like a soliloquy in a play. Dissect each phrase to observe how you say it rhythmically. Sometimes you can anticipate, but in general, you'll find that back-phrasing works well in ballads. In some cases, you may need to adjust to line-up the melody with the chord changes. Practice your ballad using your speech rhythms until it feel quite natural and authentic to you. When in doubt, go back to the Shirley Horn video for inspiration!