Ella and Parveen: Could They Sing Together?

Jazz Scat Singing and Indian Classical Singing

I’ve always been interested in the similarities of world music and one similarity in particular sparked my interest early on: scat singing and Indian Classical music.

The two singers mentioned in the title: Ella Fitzgerald and Parveen Sultana are two amazing singers who epitomize the vocal style of improvisation in their respective styles of jazz and Indian Classical music.

In jazz vocal technique singers use various scales that correspond to the harmony of the song along with phrases and chords, to create their improvisations.  There are no fixed syllables that a singer uses and they can create their own syllables to make a phrase easier to sing.  The name Bebop came from the “nonsense” syllables that Bird and Dizzy Gillespie used to sing their complex solo lines.  

In western classical music theory (from where jazz gets it’s theory), however, there are solfeggio syllables that are used for each note of the scale: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti (remember Julie Andrews and Sound of Music), and this is where the similarity comes in with Indian music.  Indian Classical music singers use the following syllables for ragas: sa, re, ga, ma, pa, da, ni, in a technique known as sargam.  When you listen to Indian classical singers improvise they use the exact syllable for each note they sing unlike in jazz where scat singers use whatever syllable they are comfortable with to deliver the note.  If jazz singers used solfeggio syllables to scat, then that would be analogous to what the Indian classical singers are doing.

Granted these styles are based on different theoretical concepts.  Jazz comes from a western harmonic concept where scales correspond to chords. Indian classical music does not focus on harmony but rhythm and melody (raga and tala).   

There are some similarities, however.  Jazz and Indian classical music both have a focus on rhythmic variety during improvisation.  Both singers try to play with the rhythm and both percussionists (drummer in jazz and tabla player in Indian classical) try and stretch the rhythmic parameters with their fills.

There is also a shared concentration on melodic expression.  As noted before, they both use scales for improvisation and there are patterns and phrases that exist in both that form a musical language to each style.

Give a listen to the examples below to hear these similarities.

“Tarana in Raag Hansadhwani” - Begum Parveen Sultana

This clip will give you a taste of Parveen Sultana’s incredible pitch consistency and ability to sing complex intervals with skill and dexterity.  For a more specific example of what I am referring to, listen closely at the 5:17 mark.

“How High The Moon” – Ella Fitzgerald

This clip from Ella Fitzgerald singing her classic version of How High the Moon shows how she uses her own scat syllables to sing notes in the scale and the various patterns and melodic phrases that she uses.

As you can tell both vocalists have impeccable pitch and have similar vocal range.  They are both masters of their instrument and set a standard for others to follow. 

Let me know your thoughts on this topic and if you have some other examples or perspectives on this I would love to hear them.

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