Sarah Vaughan was, without question, one of the greatest jazz singers. After Billie Eckstine saw her at the Apollo Amateur Night, he brought her into Earl Hines’s band, then she went on to sing with Eckstine’s historic bop big band—standing at the microphone while the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie sat behind her on the bandstand. Who’s going to argue with that?
And then there are the pipes. Vaughan’s voice—both gospel and classically trained—was a three octave Stradivarius. Capable of reaching rich, mahogany lows and bright, coloratura highs, the voice was an exceptionally flexible instrument—light on the swingers, burnished on ballads, brilliant with vibrato, and easy with horn-like scat. It was twenty times more versatile than Billie Holiday’s voice, and it was capable of emotional expression that Ella Fitzgerald didn’t dream of.
Yet “Sassy” has always been a jazz singer I admire more than love.
This particular “very best of” record, Send in the Clowns (part of the Legacy “Signature Series”), shows why a jazz fan might admire Vaughan deeply while still finding a good swath of her work off-putting. It showcases two fantastic early performances and one brilliant 1973 concert in Tokyo, but it is also exposes some of the lapses that were, alas, characteristic of the great singer’s weaknesses.
It’s only fair to note, by the way, that most jazz singers have had to run a gauntlet between pop music in jazz, pushed by producers and record companies to abandon their art for what sells. Vaughan’s problem, perhaps, was precisely the flexibility and adaptability of her glorious voice: her dalliances with pop music were quite successful, and so they gobbled up too much of career. Is it fair to judge her based on those records as much as her brilliant work, say, with Clifford Brown?
The collection begins with a particularly difficult-to-excuse lapse. Her 1974 version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” is a good idea—even a great idea—ruined by the worst kind of pop calculation. Vaughan would perform this brilliant song for the rest of her career, and this version was a “hit” of some kind, but it is a betrayal of her talent and of the song itself. Riddled with Latin percussion breakdowns, cheap electric guitar runs, swirling violin flourishes, and a whole bunch of electric keyboard cheese, this arrangement goads Sassy into misreading the lyrics utterly—tossing it off like it was a friendly bossa nova or a James Taylor ditty. Later performances of the tune with small groups would get it right, but the “original” is an object lesson in the perversion of a jazz talent.
The two older tunes here show how to get it right, however. “Black Coffee” is a swanky big band arrangement from 1949 that sets Sassy’s playful side smack in the middle of a bluesy pop arrangement that feels authentic. There are some strings for sweetening, but everything is there to set up a great vocal. “Vanity”, from 1951, is a similar success—with Vaughan laying on the vibrato in her low range without seeming overdramatic. She bends her midrange notes like a swing era saxophone player. This is a great singer.
The disc then lurches forward to a 1973 concert that captures the working Sassy band—just the singer with her trio (including Jimmy Cobb on drums)—in the resurgent part of her career. Slightly anticipating the jazz “comeback” of the late ‘70s, the band tackles a few beautifully handled standards and the unusual ballad “Poor Butterfly”—a Vaughan classic. In the middle of it all, however, there is one of Vaughan’s inexcusable personal tics: her faux-operatic take on “Summertime”. Though it starts as a stentorian ballad for piano and voice, it evolves into a show-off opportunity for Sassy’s “legit” soprano. One minute she’s singing with exquisite control in the upper range of her “jazz” voice, and the next thing you know she’s fluttering like Bugs Bunny doing Wagner. People ate up this kind of thing, I happen to know, but not me.
Next up are two tracks from Sassy’s 1972 collaboration with composer Michel Legrand, “The Summer Knows” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” These babies are schmaltzed to maximum effect—strings, of course, but also harps and keyboards and electric bass, the whole mess moving around busily while Vaughan shakes the melody like a Parkinson’s patient. There was a lot of this music being made at the time—“sophisticated” easy listening music for suburban living room “hi-fi” sets—and you can excuse it as period excess if you like. But on a “Very Best Of” set, I reserve the right to turn up my nose, even when the artist is one of the greats.
I’m less harsh on the two cuts from 1987’s Brazilian Romance, where orchestral settings are given to a Sergio Mendes tune and a Milton Nascimento tune. Vaughan had exceptional skill with bossa novas—and the light sway of this music seemed to force her voice away from its “heavy” edge and toward a gracious, swinging middle. “Nothing Will Be As It Was” is mushed up with electric piano some, but Vaughan is tough and light at the same time, giving the vocal a gritty bounce. She sounds contemporary without seeming to pander to pop.
The last tune is a live track from 1982 for which she won a Grammy. Well, we all know that Grammy voters are reactive old fogies, but this is a lovely piece of orchestral jazz. The L.A. Philharmonic adds a few dramatic shudders, but they can’t detract from Vaughan’s voice at its best—giving elastic grace to “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “A Foggy Day in London Town”.
This is not the one Sarah Vaughan record you should own. And, for straight jazz fans, a cringe or two is in store. But if Sassy is, in fact, one of the very best jazz singers ever, then you should be able to excuse an occasional lapse, right?
For me, the jury is still out. When she’s great, she’s sublime. But this collection contains a bit of the ridiculous as well.