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.
On the second disc in the set, Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi, eight of the original 12 songs were with a jazz combo headed by a young Miles Davis. Listen to what she does with songs like Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and the way her voice dips and soars throughout. The lyrics and music come together in her voice in a way that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Each note is cherished, so each word is clearly enunciated both musically and lyrically. Listening to Vaughan stretch a word over a sequence of notes without sounding artificial or forced is one of the wonders of the world. If you could hear the different notes taffy makes when its pulled, I’m sure it would sound something like her singing.
The highlight of the set for me was the third disc, Gershwin Live. The fact that she opens the proceedings with a medley of songs from Porgy and Bess doesn’t hurt, as it contains some of my favourite Gershwin tunes. “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Loves You Porgy” are the three she blends together here. Now this concert was recorded almost three decades after the first two discs, but her voice and delivery are every bit as polished and believable as they were on the earlier records. In fact, I much prefer the rendition of “Summertime” included here than on the After Hours.
Instead of worrying so much about making it an uptempo offering that will appeal to popular audiences, they offer a slower, bluesier version. We’re not talking Janis Joplin slow, but we’re talking slow and drawn out enough to make you feel the heat of the Georgian sun beating down on those picking cotton. You can really hear the similarities between her voice and Billy Holliday’s. There’s that catch in her voice which sounds like its holding back years of sadness. Instead of showing any effects of aging, Vaughan’s voice on this recording seems to have grown in its ability to transmit emotions. While she was always technically gifted, at this point in her career there seems to be a new depth to her sound.
As for the fourth disc in this set, Brazilian Romance, to be honest I’ve never been a big fan of this type of Latin influenced jazz. Vaughan makes it sound better than most people are able to, but it still sounds like Latin music that’s been toned down to make it acceptable for all audiences. Something you’d hear performed by a country club orchestra in the 1950s. It might sound sort of Latin, but the heart’s taken out of it. However, that doesn’t stop it from being well played and sung, as Vaughan does her best to give the arrangements life.
For those who aren’t familiar with Sarah Vaughan, The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a great way to be introduced to this extraordinary vocalist. Not only does each disc contain all songs from the original recordings, both After Hours and In Hi-Fi contain bonus material that’s never been included on an album before. These include eight alternate takes on the latter and four tracks previously released as 78 rpm singles on the former. The set also comes with a booklet supplying the history of each album and detailed credits for each track.
Sarah Vaughan may not have had the same romantic appeal of Billie Holliday or achieved the fame of other singers, but this package proves she deserves to be remembered as one of the great jazz and blues singers of the 20th century. So put these CDs on your stereo, sit back, and let yourself be transported back to the days of night clubs and joints that jumped.