The majority of the CDs I review are either new releases or recordings that reflect the current trends in popular music. These trends had their genesis in the amalgamation of African American music and country music which took place in the 1950s. However, that doesn’t mean there was no popular music prior to those days. Every so often the opportunity arises to review music from this earlier period and it’s hard not to be struck by the contrast between the two eras. The most glaring of these is how the artists of this earlier era are, for the main part, far more musically sophisticated.
This was driven home to me again when listening to a recent release from Legacy Recordings featuring the works of the late great jazz/blues vocalist Sarah Vaughan. While the majority of her recordings were with other labels, Vaughan released four LPs on the old Columbia label which have now been packaged as the four-CD set The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. What’s wonderful about this collection is that it not only shows off the depth of her talent and versatility as a vocalist it gives listeners the opportunity to hear her at both the beginning and near the end of her career.
The first two discs in the collection, After Hours With Sarah Vaughan and Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi, were both originally released in 1955. We then jump forward in time nearly 30 years for her 1982 release Michael Tilson Thomas/Sarah Vaughan: Gershwin Live recorded at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles, with Tilson Thomas conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The fourth disc in the set, and the last she released under her own name, Brazilian Romance, was released in 1987 and produced by Sergio Mendes.
Each disc gives us the chance to hear her singing a different type of music. Big band and swing influenced popular tunes, sophisticated jazz, the classical blues of the Gershwin brothers, and finally Latin music. Yet no matter what she’s singing, you can’t help but notice her amazing control and range. She’s able to float effortlessly from the lowest end of the scale to the highest without effort. Her singing is as much second nature as breathing is to most of us.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the term “phrasing” applied to singing, it’s not something you hear often anymore. To be honest its not something I’m sure I can define. The closest I can come to is that it refers to a singer’s ability to associate the lyrics of a song with the music. However, it means more than just being able to carry a tune. It’s how you sing the words and music together. It’s the ability to turn your voice into a lead instrument in a band and take one word and extend it over a whole series of notes. However ,it doesn’t just mean the ability to sustain a note. It’s continuing to sing the melody, but with only one or a few words without them losing meaning or throwing the continuity of the song out of whack.
Listen to Vaughan wrap her voice around a word and you begin to understand what is meant by the term. You also realize why you don’t hear the term used very often anymore as very few modern singers have this ability. To be fair the music of today doesn’t really lend itself to that style of singing either. However hearing a singer of the quality of Vaughan, you begin to regret its passing. I’m sure there are jazz singers around who have the ability, but we don’t hear them on a regular basis.
Of course it’s this ability which allowed her to be equally comfortable with any style of music she wished to sing. On After Hours we hear her sail through a series of smoothly orchestrated pop tunes. Even the version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” on this disc is given the uptempo treatment. This might have been a collection of rather commercial standards, but she gives them a soulfulness that raises them above the level of just another pop song. She might not be as emotionally raw as Billie Holliday, but that doesn’t stop her from being able to imbue even the simplest of songs with the heart necessary to make them soar.