Usually, an aging artist’s last recording can make for a somber listening experience. The voice may be a shadow of what it once was, or the singer may try a genre that does not fit his/her style (e.g. Frank Sinatra’s Duets albums with such rockers as Bono). Many times, such musicians should have retired while at the top of their game.
Someone forgot to tell jazz legend Sarah Vaughan, whose voice remained undiminished. In 1987, Vaughan embarked on her third Brazilian jazz album (her first two being 1977′s I Love Brazil! and 1979′s Copacabana), Brazilian Romance, with two impressive talents at the helm: Sergio Mendes, who produced the album, and Milton Nascimento, the post-bossa nova singer/songwriter. Due to Vaughan’s status, she could recruit top session musicians, and Brazilian Romance is no exception: George Duke, Dori Caymmi, Paulinho da Costa, Tom Scott, and Ernie Watts represent just a few members of the stellar lineup. Yes, parts of the album now sound dated: the synthesizers and some electronic drums reek of the 1980s. But Vaughan’s still powerful voice and ability to interpret some extremely difficult songs, despite her declining health, remains astounding. “Nothing Will Be as It Was (Nada Será Como Antes)” particularly stands out for her unique skill in performing songs with complicated melodies and chord changes, all over a rapid tempo.
The fact that Vaughan chose to work with Nascimento is no surprise, as both possessed much in common. Like Vaughan, Nascimento became a rule breaker; as Jazz.com’s Ted Giola writes, he “played bossa songs with the ‘wrong’ chord changes.” “Nothing Will Be as It Was” contains unusual chord changes that should not flow together, yet somehow do. The tempo and melody lack the straightforward bossa nova of “The Girl from Ipanema,” yet they retain the sultry beat typical of Latin jazz. Only Vaughan could successfully tackle such as challenge, with her full range and musician’s ability to improvise. As NPR’s Tom Moon states, “Without resorting to shooby-doo scatting, she’d develop free-floating, impulsive phrases that were audacious enough to change the shape and the tone of a song.” Indeed, her version of “Nothing Will Be as It Was” keeps its original Brazilian elements, yet she injects enough of her own style to make it a distinctively Sarah Vaughan recording.
The translated lyrics sound odd, yet perfectly accompany the melody. Vaughan accesses the lower ranges of her voice when singing the line “I know nothing will be as it was…tomorrow,” then mimics the tempo just by singing the words “Tell me when will I hear from my people/Tell me when will I hear from my friends?” However, the most striking aspect of the track comes with the lyric
“Holding onto a teardrop of sun in the mouth of the night,” which contains some of the strangest chord changes ever heard. Yet Vaughan effortlessly croons the notes, her deep voice adding mystery to the rather opaque words. Add to the mix Watts’ soaring alto sax solo, and the result is one of the most unusual, yet beautiful, Brazilian jazz tunes ever recorded.
Other tracks on Brazilian Romance shine, including the Mendes classic “So Many Stars,” “Obsession,” and “Your Smile” (the latter two I first encountered through singer Kevyn Lettau), but “Nothing Will Be as It Was” excels for its intricacy and beauty. Not a hint of illness taints Vaughan’s glorious voice on the song, even though Brazilian Romance was to be her last full album before her death in 1990. Clearly she was willing to tackle extremely difficult material in the late stages of her career, an impressive feat for any artist.
“Any day, any time, any hour/You can hear our new song in the air,” sang Vaughan. Twenty-four years later, the jazz songstress can still enchant listeners with her warm voice and overall artistry.