Mel Tormé (1925–1999) was the Art Tatum of singers: a daredevil improviser with equally flawless chops and remarkable harmonic smarts, he would take a tune and break it down into 1,000 glistening arpeggios, then put it back together in a way that often improved on the original. Like Tatum, he could do all this without losing the thread of the melody, and with the added dimension of using his musicality to bring out the meaning of the words. Frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald — which he considered a tremendous compliment — if Tormé wasn’t the greatest male pure jazz singer of all time (after Louis Armstrong), it’s hard to imagine who was.
In jazz terminology, it’s known as “call and response”: The trumpet section plays a few notes, which are answered immediately by the saxophones. Or, a soloist will give out with a four-bar phrase and then hear it echoed back at him by the full ensemble. Call and response is as essential to big band swing as the idea of “theme and variations” is to classical music.