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Sarah Vaughan and Woody Herman

On the Radio: The 1963 'Live' Guard Sessions

(Acrobat Music; US: 11 Jul 2008; UK: Available as import)

When bringing the past to the present for a new release, you’ve got a few options. You can update the feel of the recording by trying to re-contextualize it and emphasize its current importance. You could also try to capture the work as a historical document, preserving it, but expanding it and explaining it; in short, making it usable. Finally, you can just repackage it as a snapshot, trying to present a moment in time as free as possible of change, editing, and the like. The new version of Sarah Vaughan and Woody Herman’s 1963 radio recordings takes the latter approach, and it doesn’t always pay off.


This method seems a little strange given that the music was available on a 1994 release. The point could have been to make these recordings feel fresh or to properly contextualize them for analysis, but this package offers a straightforward rendering with simple liner notes (essentially a quick overview of Vaughan’s career to that point, with a few words spent on Herman, too, and a little commentary on the recordings).


The release seems designed to function as nostalgia. While the music (which I’ll get to, trust me) holds up, there’s little here to warrant the release aside from the novelty of Vaughan and Herman’s orchestra performing together. Otherwise, the disc simply provides an early ‘60s radio show. Much of the studio banter is included here. The talking (which the liner notes accurately describe as “rather obviously scripted” and “pretty excruciating to the modern listener”) does help set the mood and keep the context of the music. Aside from its camp value, the patter stays terribly unlistenable. Vaughan and Herman are game enough, but few people could have remained comfortable sticking to that script (although DJ Martin Block remains unfazed).


The content of the script also makes this release oddly timed. Much of the banter is about the value of joining the National Guard. The notes explain that the sessions were “sponsored by the US National Guard in order to maintain recruitment levels”. This fact’s apparent. It’s a bit like watching a movie and seeing the main character open the fridge and direct a can of Coke-not-any-other-soda at the camera before taking a big swing. This is, of course, what the skip button’s for. Given the US’s current military situation (and its repeat tours, recruiting needs, and Guard concerns), the album jars in the context of the US in 2008.


The disc’s redeeming feature is its music. After all, it is Sarah Vaughan and Woody Herman with the Herd. If you like to swing, you can’t go wrong with Herman’s group, and they shine throughout. As a Vaughan fan, I was surprised to find myself more taken with the instrumental cuts (there’s a fair split between Vaughan vocal numbers and instrumental band pieces). The closing track “The Preacher” has plenty to say, revealing a band that’s unified as a group and full of gifted soloists. The highlight comes with “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, a track that should feel rote and dated by now, but that the band manages to bounce convincingly, even to contemporary ears. The only downside is that it’s a shortish performance and leads into a talk about how actually you do get around if you’re in the National Guard.


Vaughan is simply Vaughan. She’s a fine singer and neither her range nor her delivery falters throughout, so she sounds great on uptempo tracks like “Just One of Those Things” as well as slower pieces like “I’ll Be Seeing You”. It’s a professional performance throughout, but there’s little to recommend it above any given Vaughan recording.


...Unless you’re part of a particular audience. Completists may want this, as may jazz historians. The true demographic to look out for here is older people looking for a nostalgic trip to moderately old radio (moderately old, because the tunes and conversation actually sound a little past due for 1963). It’s perfect for jazz fans looking for a spark from the past. Sometimes reminders are more stimulating than discoveries.

Rating:

Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.


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