Sassy’s Late Basie-Band Album a Knockout

Sarah Vaughan front cover

SEND IN THE CLOWNS / ARLEN-KOEHLER: I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues; Ill Wind. KLEMMER-LEWIS: Just Friends. DAMERON-SIGMAN: If You Could See Me Now. SWAN: When Your Lover Has Gone. SONDHEIM: Send in the Clowns. NOBLE: I Hadn’t Anyone Til You. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are. HERBERT-DUBIN: Indian Summer. PORTER: From This Moment On / Sarah Vaughan, vocal; George Gaffney, pianist; Andy Simpkins, bassist; Harold Jones, drums; Dale Carley, Sonny Cohn, Willie Cook, Bob Summers, Frank Szabo, trumpets; Bill Hughes, Grover Mitchell, Dennis Wilson, Booty Wood, trombones; Eric Dixon, Bobby Plater, Danny Turner, a-sax/t-sax; Kenny Hing, t-sax; John Williams, bar-sax; Freddie Green, guitarist; Sammy Nestico, Allyn Ferguson, arrangers / Pablo PACD-2312-130-2

Frank Sinatra, who wasn’t born with the world’s greatest singing voice and knew it, worked like a dog to train his pipes to do his bidding. Sarah Vaughan, by contrast, was probably the most naturally gifted of all pop or jazz singers. She was born with that voice and not only didn’t have to work to develop or maintain it, she smoked, she drank, she ate full four-course dinners and then went out to sing a two-hour concert. Beautifully. Hearing her in concert around 1966, Sinatra made the succinct comment: “Sassy is singing so well right now that she makes me want to go out and slash my wrists!”

But not having to work at her talent also led Vaughan to occasional excesses of style. When in the mood, she would swoop, scoop, slide on the pitch and divebomb from a top A to a low C, often to the detriment of the music. Thus, when approaching a new album or going to one of her concerts, you didn’t always know which Sarah Vaughan you were going to get. Happily, this late set—her third album with members of the Count Basie Orchestra without Basie (her first was No Count Sarah, recorded in August 1957)—is so good that, once again, rival singers coming to it may feel like going out and slashing their wrists. She’s that good.

Here, Vaughan displays all the resources at her command but never oversteps musical bounds. In terms of phrasing and style, Vaughan is every bit the jazz diva without overdoing the ham. Perhaps it was because she responded so well to the superb arrangements by Allyn Ferguson (If You Could See Me Now and All the Things You Are) and Sammy Nestico, who set off her voice beautifully as well as provide some good solo space to the various Basie musicians. (Scott Yanow, in his review of this album, only gave it three stars because he says the arrangements “do not leave much room for any of the Basie sidemen to solo.” Maybe he was reviewing a different recording.)

What surprised me most about this album was its recording date, February and May of 1981, fairly late in Sassy’s great career. Generally speaking, every song in this collection is an older one, even Stephen Sondheim’s sappy Send in the Clowns (although that is the newest tune of the lot). The rhythm section of pianist Gaffney, bassist Simpkins and drummer Jones is actually Vaughan’s working trio of this period, the rest of the musicians being the bulk of the Basie band, and they respond with playing that is both relaxed and energizing. They clearly enjoyed working with her, and she with them. One of the more interesting soloists here is trombonist Booty Wood, who split his time between Basie’s and Duke Ellington bands. He provides a touch of Ellingtonia in the form of a plunger-muted solo on the opening I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.

Sarah always wanted to cross over into the pop market and made several attempts to do so; the only semi-hit record of hers I remember clearly was Broken-Hearted Melody, which I loved, but it didn’t become a major hit for her. None of them did. Reflecting on this, I think it was simply because her voice was too rich, too powerful, too quasi-operatic. Nowadays people whoop and holler about “opera singers” on America’s Got Talent or American Idol because some teenage girl can warble “Nessun dorma” as if she’s about to give birth to twins, but none of these singers have REAL voices like Sassy’s. Jazz fans, and some critics, used to joke about wanting to hear Vaughan sing Wagner. They were only half-kidding, because although it wasn’t her style they knew she could have done it if she tried. Singers with voices like Sarah Vaughan simply don’t appeal to the American public. Folk singer Holly Near, who also had a rich and powerful voice, once said it was because American men like their women to sound submissive and singers like her didn’t. Neither did Vaughan. And she wasn’t submissive in personality. She swore like a sailor, was loud and raucous, and didn’t give a crap what anyone thought of her. But with those pipes, who cared?

My sole complaint of this album is its brevity, but in 1981 the 40-minute-or-under LP was still a standard in jazz. No matter. If you’re a Vaughan fan, this album belongs on your shelf.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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