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Sarah Vaughan: Duke Ellington Songbook, Vol. 2

Verve/ Universal Music; CD; Rs. 295

Like her slightly senior and more famous colleague Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, one of the triumvirate of leading jazz singers of the 1940s to 1980s, had a foot in both the jazz and pop camps – capable of swinging with the best instrumental soloists and holding her own against them with improvising “scat” (nonsense syllable) vocals, and yet partial to pop standards, especially ballads, and singing them straight.

Like Fitzgerald, she tried to do a series of songbook albums paying tribute to the great composers of popular American music of 20th century, but less thoroughly covering that pantheon than Fitzgerald did. Most of these albums descended on the pop side of the fence that Vaughan and Fitzgerald straddled, but naturally an album devoted to Duke Ellington (and that includes work by his composing buddy Billy Strayhorn), the jazz bandleader and greatest American composer of the century in any musical genre, has to show off Vaughan's jazz “chops”. Vaughan and her fellow-musicians together go through eleven pieces of sublime music, not always laying great stress on solo improvisation – Ellington himself was wont to vary that stress – but showing enough of everyone's talent in this direction. What an album this turns out to be!

Accompanied by a pianist, guitarist, bassist and drummer each chosen from a roster of two or three names, some famous, for each track, Vaughan is joined on the front line by Frank Wess on tenor saxophone and flute, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson on alto saxophone (and vocals on one track), and Waymon Reed on trumpet and flugelhorn. For example, Strayhorn's “Chelsea Bridge”, a sublime “ballad” without a lyric (at least none of the over a score of versions I've heard has any words), is done with a wordless vocal in a style that the Ellington orchestra's female singers made famous in the 1930s and that is the only improvisation on this piece.

On other tracks, guitar, piano, or one of the front line improvises, occasionally Vaughan doing a turn herself with scat, as on “What Am I Here for?”. There are other tracks such as “Mood Indigo” on which Vaughan improvises heavily on the melody while staying faithful to the lyric, but perhaps teasing out the words in the manner of Indian classical singers.

In an album devoted almost entirely to slow ballads and blues – the fastest number being the medium-paced “It Don't Mean a Thing (if It Ain't Got That Swing)” – Vaughan manages to swing hard and maintain a jazz feeling. And she's ably supported by some great instrumentalists.

The Definitive Sarah Vaughan (Ken Burns Jazz)

Verve/ Universal Music; CD; Rs. 395

Regular readers of my reviews in these columns might remember that some years ago I reviewed a few compilation albums, each devoted to one musician, that were spun off by Ken Burns's famous series of TV documentaries, “Jazz”. Many of those were taken from at least two recording labels the musician was associated with in a long career, but here comes one drawn entirely from one label. Although that might theoretically have limited the available material, Verve, through its founder Norman Granz, was so successful in tapping great jazz musicians that the limitation needn't have made any difference.

No excuses, then, for this compilation of pieces sung by Sarah Vaughan to have fallen so short of being a satisfying, leave alone “definitive”, jazz album, particularly since Verve's compilation of Vaughan in its earlier series “Compact Jazz” is such a fine collection and could easily have served as a starting-point if not been imported wholesale into this anthology. With 16 tracks adding up to almost as much as a CD can accommodate, the album could have been quite exhaustive as well as discriminating.

What we find here, in fact, is that the field ploughed is Vaughan's entire work as a singer, both in pop and jazz, and with little attempt to showcase her special jazz talents or those of the instrumentalists who backed her up. In that department, the opening track, “Interlude”, based on Dizzy Gillespie's famous tune “A Night in Tunisia” and featuring a trumpet solo by Gillespie himself, helps to start the album off on the right note.

We get a generous helping of good solos on “Can't Get out of This Mood” from tenor saxophone, clarinet, and trombone, and another such offering in “You're not the Kind”. Vaughan's vocal improvisation abilities, so well shown off on the Ellington songbook album reviewed alongside this one, are featured on “The Nearness of You” – on which she herself on piano is the sole instrumentalist. Lastly, guitar solos alternate beautifully with scat vocal improvisation on “Autumn Leaves”.

The rest of the album features Vaughan's famous and gorgeous voice with almost no solos from the instrumentalists, who're all the more wasted when one considers that they include many of the great names in jazz such as trumpeters Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard and Clifford Brown, Bud Powell on piano, and J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding on trombone.

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