“Sarah Vaughan has had a major influence on me as a singer”, writes Lauren Bush, in the second of our series of jazz musicians writing about tracks/albums they can’t do without.
In 2016 when I was lucky enough to become a top-5 finalist in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, I spent a great deal more time listening to her music and learning about her life.
Her voice is so distinctive; operatic undertones in her vibrato and, of course, her range (more than 3 octaves) but yet, definitively ‘jazz’ in style. You can hear the heartache dripping from her voice as she sings ballads like Misty and Body and Soul, and equally, she can flavour the lyrics of I Cried For You/What a Fool I Used To Be with equal amounts of disdain, derision and delight.
My passion for Sarah Vaughan came after I was introduced to the world of Ella Fitzgerald. Ella is terrific, don’t get me wrong. She’s like no other…but after consuming every available morsel of her music, when my ears heard Sarah something flipped for me. She’s not just jazz, she’s a singer, or more specifically – a musician – who just happened to choose jazz as her medium and that is fascinating to me.
- All of Me from Swingin’ Easy (1957)
I think the first song I fell in love with (and the one that comes to mind the most when I think of SV), was All of Me from her 1957 album, Swingin’ Easy (EmArcy Records). All of Me is a pretty well-loved standard, but she turns it into something so unique. She uses the fairly basic chord changes as a blank canvas, on which she paints the most inventive scat, spanning almost 3 octaves (E3 to Bb5) without blinking an eye. This track features Jimmy Jones on Piano, Richard Davis on Bass and Roy Haynes on drums.
2) When Sunny Gets Blue from Sarah+2 (1962)
I remember listening to this album, Sarah+2, in the car a lot when I was in university, studying voice in the classical music department and wishing so badly that I could just convince my square teachers that Sarah Vaughan was way more fun to listen to than any Italian aria. The sparseness of the band with just Barney Kessel on guitar and Joe Comfort on double bass allows for so much of her operatic vibrato to reverberate through as she pushes and pulls the phrases, adding bluesy hues wherever possible. Analysing her voice, I realised that she uses her vibrato on consonants as well as vowels. I remember trying to employ this technique on a voice jury I had coming up and getting docked quite a few marks for my “stylings”.
3) I Got Rhythm from Sweet and Sassy (1963)
The recording is off the album Sweet and Sassy which came out on Roulette Records in 1963 with arrangements written by Lalo Schifrin. Vaughan’s time on Roulette was short but she churned out about 13 records in 4 years. There are quite a few forgettable albums during this time but this one has a few hits on it. As a young girl, I wasn’t that into jazz yet, but I remember my dad putting this on from his LP collection (More than 2000!) and being impressed by this version of I Got Rhythm because of the suspense it created. Vaughan sings acapella and the horns blast these hits in at the end of each 8 bars. It’s a burning tempo and she makes it sound so hip. The arrangement kind of fades into chaos and unfortunately fades out, but it’s still thrilling.
4) Great Day from After Hours (1961)
This is one of the tunes I listened to over and over again when I was preparing for the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition. I took a lesson with the wonderful pianist Barry Green and he asked me if I’d ever heard the album After Hours. I wasn’t privy, so, after my lesson, we put it on. Great Day features George Duvivier playing double time walking bass through the 2 minute track. Mundell Lowe on guitar joins in about half way, comping, but Vaughan is so in charge here. This is the epitome of cool, in my opinion.
5) Doodlin’ from No Count Sarah (1959)
This song, written by Horace Silver, and lyrics by Jon Hendricks is found on the album No Count Sarah with the Count Basie Orchestra. They’ve brought the speed down about 15 bpm from the original Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version. The tempo gives Vaughan so much freedom with the lyrics and you hear every little nuance. There are elements of Annie Ross’ cheekiness, but let’s just say there’s a reason they call Sarah Vaughan “Sassy”!
6) Nobody Else But Me from The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan (1963)
This arrangement is super hip and has been written to accentuate every one of Vaughan’s strengths. From the album The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan and arranged by Benny Carter, there are tons of songs from this recording that are worth a listen, including a big band version of Great Day.
7) Sassy’s Blues from Sassy Swings the Tivoli (1963)
There are only 8 albums of Vaughan singing live. Live at Mister Kelly’s is well known, but on this occasion she was asked to sing new material which leaves her sounding quite timid and reserved, especially in her stage conversation. Sassy Swings the Tivoli (produced by Quincy Jones), on the other hand, is Sarah Vaughan in all her glory. Sassy’s Blues is my favourite because she pulls out every trick and sounds like she’s having the time of her life but be sure to check out the whole thing. Close your eyes and it’s like you’re there.
8) Send in the Clowns from Send in the Clowns (1981)
This ballad makes me stop in my tracks every time I hear it. Vaughan recorded this song first for Mainstream Records, but the label made a mockery of the cover and Vaughan was recorded to have been really offended by the cover design…rightly so, it’s pretty offensive.
Luckily she fell so in love with Sondheim’s song, that she recorded another version of it with the Basie Orchestra in 1981 for Pablo Records. She sounds like she’s still at the peak of her vocal ability, though she is now in her late 50’s (she died in 1990) and belts out classical-like high notes at the end. The arrangement, which at times sounds more like a gorgeous hymn than a show tune, leaves lots of space for Vaughan’s evocative interpretation.
9) Jump For Joy from The Divine One (1960)
I’ve always loved that Vaughan was given these nicknames by people in “the business”. To me it showed that she was considered an equal and that they really admired her talent. “Sassy” is obvious and comes across when you see live recordings of Vaughan when she interacts with her band and the audience. “The Divine One” is much more reverent but her voice is so weighty and dexterous – it is pretty divine. So the album, The Divine One is known as one of her most impressive albums. She was touring quite a bit at this time and Jimmy Jones (who wrote the arrangements) was a staple in her band.
I’m often drawn to songs that are rooted in black american tradition (jazz…right?) and this anthem-like standard, Jump For Joy, by Duke Ellington from a musical review of the same title was quite edgy for the time. Vaughan, of course, conveys the joyful message with all the “sassy-ness” she’s known for.
10) I Left My Heart in San Francisco from Sassy Swings Again (1967)
For my last pick, I was really torn as to what to include. I toiled over my list for ages and erased the title above many times. I felt like I should include Tenderly on my list, because it’s become so synonymous with Sarah Vaughan. And then I thought I should pick something from her recording with the Oscar Peterson Trio because it was an outstanding recording, especially Body and Soul where she does a duet with just Ray Brown.
But what about something from her Live in Japan recording? Well, that was 2 discs and I couldn’t find a way to pick just one.
I’ve spent the last 2 months listening to the Sarah Vaughan discography from start to finish and when I Left My Heart in San Francisco came on, I had to scrawl it down. It’s from Sassy Swings Again (1967) and features arrangements by Thad Jones, J.J. Johnson, Manny Albam, and Bob Jame. Not to mention, an absolutely all star band with the likes of Clark Terry, Joe Newman, Freddie Hubbard, Kai Winding, Phil Woods, and Benny Golson.
I hope this last track leaves you wanting to parade around in style with Sarah Vaughan proudly blaring throughout your sound system. I can thankfully say that even after 2 solid months of nothing-but-Sarah, I would happily put on almost anything in her expansive discography and listen in awe.
Canadian-born, London-based vocalist Lauren Bush’s most recent album, available on Soundcloud, is All My Treasures