By Robert Walton
It may seem obvious but the best test for a voice, first and foremost, is the sound it produces. Nothing else. If you love the resonance a vocalist can produce, a load of gobbledygook will tell you more about the artist than all the phrasing and lyrics a wordsmith can conjure up.
In the case of Sarah Vaughan just imagine a thorough free range wallow on the instrument she was born with (Newark, New Jersey 1924) and you have the nearest thing to an opera singer in jazz. To an outsider her basic style, like Frank Sinatra’s, might be misinterpreted as overdoing the sentimental bit, like suffering. The older generation totally rejected that 1940s tendency of sounding miserable. This might have been slight exaggeration but there’s an element of truth in it. Of course “anything goes” is the byword when studying a voice of Vaughan’s calibre. The possibilities are endless. Scales, arpeggios, ducking and diving, improvising, in fact everything. And Vaughan who was more than capable of exercising the vocal chords just like a trapeze artist took risks, never missing a trick.
And talking of her own personal technology like Italian singers and the general public of that country, she ends words, especially the high long ones, with a clear cut-off point echoing the sheer power generated just to get the note airborne. She may have been a mistress of jazz but she sang some of the old fashioned ballads like a trooper. Because, one of my Lanza favourites, is given a fabulous treatment and has the listener guessing, will she go for the final high note? She does and it comes off magnificently. And keeping us aware of Climate Change, Oscar Rasbach’s ballad Trees showing off her contralto ability is the best female version I know. I only wish she had tried some Puccini. On the other hand she could swing like mad and her pitch was absolutely perfect. Wrap your Troubles in Dreams is an excellent example of relaxed swing with a Dave Pell-like small group. A good up-tempo standard with a conventional big band is This Can’t be Love. She really was the complete all rounder. I don’t think even the great Jo Stafford had the richness and control.
And while we’re on the subject of Stafford, her duets with Gordon MacRae are legendary and noted for their soft-hued matching. Sarah Vaughan’s partner was Billy Eckstine who again blended perfectly with her.
When she was 7, Sarah Lois began having piano and organ lessons useful for the local church, but she soon realized singing was her major passion. Her big break came in a 1942 amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theatre with the prize of a week’s employment on the bill with none other than Ella Fitzgerald. For a jazz singer this was the ultimate dream. Earl Hines saw her, hired her and suddenly she was singing with Charlie Parker, Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie which brought her to bebop.
In her heyday she regularly topped all the jazz charts like Downbeat Magazine and was generally considered the best in her field. Consequently she was imitated by many other vocalists, but very few equaled her. Just to hear that unique vibrato was one of life’s musical treats.
So far in this article, Vaughan’s tracks have been taken from an EMI Music for Pleasure album titled “20 Jazz Classics” MFP 6160. But there is still one aspect of her singing we haven’t yet tackled......sensitivity. There really is only one album in her repertoire, which concentrates on that aspect. That’s the 12 track LP she made with Robert Farnon and the Svend Saaby Danish Choir in Copenhagen in 1963, “Vaughan with Voices”. (Mercury 20014 MCL) The way she warmed to Farnon’s beautiful arrangements is now history. One of them happened to be the arranger’s own composition How Beautiful is Night. Vaughan, Farnon and the Choir merged in a perfect threesome giving the tune a definitive outing never again achieved on disc.
So effectively two famous ladies were in town at the same time. The first, the permanent fixture of “The Little Mermaid” bronze statue displayed nearby on a rock by the Copenhagen waterside, and a visiting giant of jazz, coloratura soprano Sarah Vaughan.
Proving yet again Sarah Vaughan could easily switch from one genre to another, her finest recording was the unlikely light orchestral composition Serenata by Leroy Anderson. In the key of F, listen to the lovely chord of Fmaj 9 sung each time on the word “stand”. Only “The Divine One” could capture it quite so dramatically. Crossover artist extraordinaire!
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