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The Rapture of Sarah Vaughan
The lush romanticism of Vaughan With Voices
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. The three most consequential female jazz vocalists to emerge out of the Big Band era who became utterly dominant forces in mid-20th century popular music.
Growing up, Ella was part of the soundtrack in our house with my father gradually assembling a collection of the song books she recorded with Norman Granz in the fifties and sixties—as close to sacred text as there is when it comes to the Great American Songbook. And like father, like son, I have also gradually built my own collection of them. Topping that, my cat is named after her.
When it comes to Lady Day, I must make a confession: I’ve just never really been able to get too much into her music. Perhaps it has something to do with her vocal range which is limited and admittedly, either entirely beside the point or a weak excuse for not cultivating a taste for her music. That being said, I absolutely cherish her appearance on the 1957 The Sound of Jazz television special—her performance of ‘Fine and Mellow’ with an all-star band, including musical soulmate Lester Young, is for the ages. So perhaps there is hope for me yet.
And how do I feel about Sarah Vaughan? Let me offer a comparison. When I hear Ella sing Gershwin, I marvel at the brightness she brings to George and Ira’s songs. It was really only after hearing her masterful 1959 Gershwin song book that I fully appreciated Ira’s brilliant wordplay (‘Slap That Bass’ is a prime example). When I hear Vaughan sing Gershwin on her 1958 song book, I have more than likely dissolved into a puddle of goo by the end of each song (‘The Man I Love’ is as good an example as any) and am desperately trying to pull myself together in time for the next song.
Indeed, to hear Sarah Vaughan against a lush background of strings is to hear the fullest expression of her approach to popular song. Among the singers of her generation, Vaughan’s technique was intimidatingly formidable: a multi-octave range, sensuous vibrato, supreme volume control, an improviser’s ability to refashion a song’s melody seemingly at will and a rich, frothy tone. Vaughan didn’t simply use technique for technique’s sake, but used it to bring out the beauty, the colour and the heart in the song she was singing in order to craft thoroughly unique performances, compact cinematic scenes in vibrant technicolour.
It is all thus when considering Vaughan With Voices, a simply rapturous recording from 1963 that marked her return to Mercury Records after a stint on Roulette. The arrangements are by Robert Farnon, a Canadian-born composer, trumpeter and arranger. Farnon’s charts employ the most minimal of rhythm sections—a bass providing the slightest of pulses—that result in an almost-symphonic accompaniment to Vaughan that provides her licence to use the many vocal tricks in a bag overflowing with them. In addition, there is choral backing by the Svend-Saaby Danish Choir. While in some instances the choir provides effective backing to Vaughan, its’ often-stilted and awkward cadence betray the fact that English is not the choir’s mother tongue.
When listening to the album however, the focus is almost entirely on Sarah Vaughan. Each performance is a dazzling realization of human drama. As a whole, Vaughan With Voices sustains a mood of rhapsodic balladry that never gets dull or boring but always remains interesting, arresting and intimate. The opener, ‘My Colouring Book,’ begins almost Disney-esque. The strings play a descending line for Vaughan to gently sing the verse using a slight vibrato. It immediately grabs the listener’s attention. The song is one of exquisite and brittle beauty. Vaughan uses the colouring instructions in the lyrics to chart the desolation of the one in a relationship who remains after the other has left. Her ascents and descents while singing “This is the room that I sleep in and walk in and weep in and hide in that nobody, nobody's seen” are astonishing as is the slight cry in her voice as she completes the line as well as the extended phrasing she uses to describe how to continue colouring in the portrait she is describing.
Moments like these abound throughout the album. The refashioning of the melody of ‘Hey There,’ how Vaughan taps into the fairy tale narrative of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s ‘It Could Happen to You’ to squeeze every ounce of beauty out of Van Heusen’s profoundly lovely melody and the near-operatic singing on the bridge of ‘How Beautiful is Night.’
The choir’s introduction to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s ‘Days of Wine and Roses,’ in which it sings the song title to set up Vaughan to float in with, “…and run away,” is perhaps its most sublime moment on the album. The song is a work of genius, the finest of Mancini and Mercer’s fruitful collaboration (watch Jack Lemmon, who co-starred with Lee Remick in the movie of the same name, recount hearing the song played for the first time). Vaughan caresses Mancini’s indelible melody with delicacy and fashions Mercer’s lyrics with jaw-dropping climbs like on “filled” in “filled with memories” as well as a trembling quaver in her voice to stretch certain words and rendering the song title with the finality and reverence it deserves.
The melody line of Arthur Schwartz and Yip Harburg’s ‘Then I’ll Be Tired of You,’ in which its’ A section climbs to a dramatic climax every eight bars, provides a natural opportunity for Vaughan to showcase her use of vibrato to further a song’s narrative line—bringing dramatic emphasis to words such as “dreaming” and “beating” while also using it to provide a tender “my love” to close the song. While the choir’s backing here is perhaps the most glaring example of its awkwardness of singing in English, it’s the exact opposite—lovely and natural are two words that come to mind—when the chorus takes the lead on the second bridge of ‘Funny.’ The wordless backing elsewhere on the song beautifully cushions Vaughan’s vocal, which ends with her repeating gorgeously the words “not much.”
If Vaughan With Voices can be seen as advancing anything like a narrative that ties its songs together, it may be that the despondent protagonist of ‘My Colouring Book,’ is in the process of mending her broken heart by the time we reach the album’s finish with Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Blue Orchids.’ A superb song that begins with Vaughan intoning the opening lines almost as spoken word, its relatively simple melody line is secondary to the cleverness of the lyrics, which wrap the idea of two blue orchids—starting as flowers and finishing with the lustre of a blue-eyed vision in a neat, little bow. It elicits one of Vaughan’s best performances on the album, tempering technique to let Carmichael’s lyrics speak for themselves. As an album closer, it satisfies deeply. As does pretty much everything else about Vaughan With Voices. Lush, rich, romantic, rapturous, wonderful—perfect for the crisp days of October.