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Music Review: Sarah Vaughan & Woody Herman – On The Radio: The 1963 Live Guard Sessions

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Sarah Vaughan and Woody Herman never made a single commercial recording together, which is a damn shame. Two of the biggest names in jazz and big band in the post-war era, Vaughan and Herman would have been a nice fit together and a more structured, polished recording would have been something special.

As it is, we’ve got On the Radio: The 1963 Live Guard Sessions instead. Taken from recording sessions designed as part of a long-running public service announcement regarding the National Guard, the presentation here is patchy but interesting. Sponsored by the U.S. National Guard, of course, these recordings were designed as extended musical advertisements with the intent of maintaining recruitment levels.

As such, the repartee between songs and the unyielding National Guard advertising sound stilted and artificial. Neither Herman nor Vaughan sounds the least bit comfortable during the gawkily scripted introductions and exchanges. Some are impossible to listen to, as a matter of fact, and bring down the quality of the release.

Happily, both Sarah and Woody are in top musical form.

With presentation bf DJ Martin Block, Herman and Vaughan tumble through a set of songs that are infused with energy and up-tempo grooves. There is a great mix of music here and Herman’s 1963 Herd is as tight a group as he would ever assemble. Vaughan’s voice floats smoothly in front of the music, creating moods and emotions in almost unworkable circumstances.

Woody Herman is a great bandleader and he gets a chance to show his stuff on this recording. The orchestra, featuring Nat Pierce on piano, is in grand shape and is often considered one of the best incarnations of the Herd to ever grace the stage. Whether swinging hard in ensemble passages or digging deep for remarkable solos, Herman’s Herd is on point.

Vaughan’s interpretation of the Cole Porter tune “Just One of Those Things” highlights the musical quality found on this disc. “On Green Dolphin Street” and the striking Gershwin number “But Not For Me” showcase Sarah’s range stylishly as well.

Herman’s Herd digs in deep for some instrumentals and Woody takes over on vocals for a few cuts to show his own voiced proficiency.

Taken as a whole, On the Radio: The 1963 Live Guard Sessions is a very fascinating recording. The skills of the performers are unparalleled, of course, but the chitchat and sense of the program often distracts from the talent of Herman and Vaughan. While including the intros and advertising for the National Guard does offer insight into the time period, I could have done without the recurrent bluster. All the same, collectors will agree that this rare coupling of Woody Herman and Sarah Vaughan is well worth a listen.

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