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Sarah Vaughan: A New Box Set Revels In Glorious Imperfections

May 20, 2013
Originally published on May 20, 2013 5:43 pm

Singer Sarah Vaughan came up in the 1940s alongside bebop lions Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, starting out in Earl Hines' big band. Hines had hired her as his singer and deputy pianist, while Gillespie praised her fine ear for chords as she grasped the arcane refinements of bebop harmony. Vaughan put them to good use as a singer, picking notes other vocalists wouldn't.

A lot of jazz singing is about consonants — the percussive attacks from which the music swings. With Vaughan, it's also about the way she rolled out her vowels, reveling in a held note like Miles Davis. Later, her vibrato could get excessive, but in the mid-'50s her taste and control were a marvel. That much is clear from a new anthology of Vaughan titled Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958. (In that period, she was recording pop albums with strings, using some of the same tunes.) It's six albums-plus on four CDs, recorded live or in the studio with bands big and small. All but one session is sparked by another bebop institution, drummer Roy Haynes. He achieves a springy beat using brushes, and doesn't overplay.

Vaughan had a gallery of vocal timbres: gravelly to silky, round or strident, white-gloved or blues-drenched. Her pitch range was operatic and her low notes have uncommon power. She drew inspiration from great soloists and gave it right back — notably in a loose session with trumpeter Clifford Brown, with whom she trades phrases on "April in Paris."

Two live albums from Chicago nightclubs are standouts, partly for their glorious imperfections. Vaughan didn't know some of the material so well, taking lyric sheets on stage, and she sometimes had to improvise her way out of trouble. Recording in the wee hours at the London House, she keeps bobbling the start of the last tune of the night, "Thanks for the Memory" — particularly when she hits the word "Parthenon." But with every take, her entrance gets more elaborate.

If anything, she sounds more focused and at ease after two false starts — at least till she blows another line, and does her best to spoil the full take. (That just made it more of a keeper.) The live dates in Divine show how a great improviser can always recover from a tailspin. The beboppers were big on that: putting the wrongest note in a context where it sounds like the perfect thing.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says everybody loves jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, even if they disagree about when she was at her peak. Kevin favors Vaughan in the 1950s. A new anthology is right up his alley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")

SARAH VAUGHAN: (singing) The way you hold your hat, the way your sip your tea, the memory, the memory of all that, no, they can't take that away from me. The way your smile just beams, the way you sing off key, key. The way you hold my dreams. No, no, they can't take that away from me. We may never...

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sarah Vaughan, 1954. She'd come up a decade earlier with bebop lions Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, starting in Earl Hines' big band. Hines had hired her as his singer and deputy pianist. Dizzy praised her fine ear for chords she grasped the arcane refinements of bebop harmony. Vaughan put them to good use as a singer, picking notes other vocalists wouldn't. This is the bridge to her second classic version of "Lover Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER MAN")

VAUGHAN: (singing) I've heard it said that the thrill of romance can be like a heavenly dream. I go to bed with a prayer that you'll make love to me. Strange as it seems. Someday...

WHITEHEAD: A lot of jazz singing is about consonants - the percussive attacks the music swings from. With Sarah Vaughan, it's also about the way she rolled out her vowels, reveling in a held note like Miles Davis. Later, her vibrato could get excessive, but in the mid-'50s her taste and control are a marvel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

VAUGHAN: (singing) Swing slow, swing low. Let me know that it's more than the night, that it's more than the light. Let the glow on my...

WHITEHEAD: This music is from an anthology of Sarah Vaughan on the MRC label: "Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958." As opposed to her pop albums with strings and some of the same tunes. It's six albums-plus on four CDs, recorded live or in the studio with bands big and small. All but one session is sparked by another bebop institution, drummer Roy Haines. He has a springy beat using brushes, and doesn't overplay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEYSUCKLE ROSE")

VAUGHAN: (singing) I don't buy sugar. You just have to touch my cup. You're my sugar. It's so sweet when you stir it up. When I'm taking sips from your tasty lips seems the honey fairly drips. You're confection. Goodness knows, honeysuckle rose.

WHITEHEAD: Sarah Vaughan had a gallery of vocal timbres: gravelly to silky, round or strident, white-gloved or blues-drenched. Her pitch range was operatic and her low notes have uncommon power. Vaughan drew inspiration from great soloists and gave it right back. Here she is with Clifford Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "APRIL IN PARIS")

VAUGHAN: (singing) April in Paris. Chestnuts in blossom. Holiday tables under the trees. April...

WHITEHEAD: That leap from the basement to the second floor kills me. Two live albums from Chicago nightclubs are standouts, partly for their glorious imperfections. Vaughan didn't know some of the material so well, taking lyric sheets on stage, and she sometimes has to improvise her way out of trouble. Recording in the wee, wee hours at the London House, she keeps bobbling the start of the last tune of the night, "Thanks for the Memory." But with every take, her entrance gets more elaborate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANKS FOR THE MEMORY")

VAUGHAN: (singing) Thanks for the memory of candlelight and wine, castles on the Rhine. (speaking) Parthenon. Parthenon? Parthenon. I got stung with a word.

WHITEHEAD: All right. Take two.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANKS FOR THE MEMORY")

VAUGHAN: (singing) Tha-a-a-anks for the memory. Of candlelight and wine, castles on the Rhine. The Parthenon - (speaking) I don't get - I don't get this word here.

WHITEHEAD: It's a temple in Greece. Third time's the charm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANKS FOR THE MEMORY")

VAUGHAN: (singing) Tha-a-a-a-a-a-a-anks for the memory of candlelight and wine, castles on the Rhine, the Parthenon, the moments on the Hudson River line. How lovely. It was so fair...

WHITEHEAD: If anything, she sounds more focused and at ease after the false starts - at least till she blows another line, and does her best to spoil the take. That just made it more of a keeper. The live dates in the Sarah Vaughan set show how a great improviser can always recover from a tailspin. The beboppers were big on that: putting the wrongest(ph) note in a context where it sounds like the perfect thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANKS FOR THE MEMORY")

VAUGHAN: (singing) So thanks for the most craziest, upset and downsidest recording day I ever had in my life. Ga-ga-ga-ga. Da-da-da-da...

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the new Sarah Vaughan box set "Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958" on Verve Select.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.