The good news in jazz recording circles is that Sarah Vaughan is active again, this time recording for Norwan Granz's Pablo label.
The singer, possessor of one of the richest and most supple voices of our time, has not enjoyed a recording career that matches her bountiful musical ability. She did not record between 1967-'72 and 1975-'78.
The current Schwann Record and Tape Guide lists only a handful of Vaughan albums. But that doesn't mean she is any less popular these days. She performs periodically on the "Tonight" show and appeared recently on the Grammy Awards broadcast. Regular radio listeners have probably heard her majestic version of Bell Telephone's Reach Out and Touch Someone" commercial.
Record producers have avoided her in part because she's never been a consistent big seller and for her tendency to radically change a melody through improvisation. It was even reported several years ago that a producer had "solved" his problem with Vaughan by giving her unfamiliar material and recording her right away before she could "go too far out."
Her experience with Granz, a strong-willed producer who favors studio jam sessions, may be of another sort. In a recent interview with Leonard Feather in The Los Angeles Times, Vaughan said Granz likes her to come to a studio, look over some sheet music and jam.
"Well, I don't want to spend the rest of my life doing that," she said.
Instead, Vaughan prefers more planning for her recording sessions. She envisions an album with Ella Fitzgerald or a concert with Carmen McRae and Fitzgerald, both with detailed preparation.
So far Granz has released two Vaughan albums he's produced, an informal small group effort and a more elaborate production using big-band accompaniment (a third Granz release was produced in Rio de Janeiro by Aloysio de Oliveira and originally issued on Brazilian RCA).
Sarah Vaughan deserves pampering. Her voice is one of the most remarkable of the 20th century. A contralto, she no longer has the feather-light upper register timbre of her younger days. But she is sumptuous, almost cello-like, in the middle and lower registers.
Vaughan can jump wide intervals with great ease. She can land on a note and stretch its tonality in ways that would tear up most singers' voices. She has superb control and discipline. Her fine ear for chord changes and theoretical knowledge of harmony enable her to improvise more daringly than most.
However, her latest album, "Duke Ellington/Song Book One" (Pablo Today 2312-111), is a disappointment. What splendid music should have come out of the combination of Ellington and Vaughan! But there's no fire here, no fanciful flight. Maybe there wasn't enough time for rehearsal. Indeed, Billy Byers' big-band arrangements sound like they were written on the run. And, more than most American popular composers, Ellington's material requires intense preparation because of its sudden, twisting melodic patterns and dark, exotic harmonies.
Sure enough, she eloquently delivers "In a Sentimental Mood," "Sophisticated Lady" and "Lush Life," all circuitous melodies. But she doesn't try the unusual, as she did in her glorious but now out-of-print 1961 version of "Sentimental Mood," where she embellishes the original melody with her own wafting lines.
Nevertheless, the album contains a burnished "Solitude," with troombonist J. J. Johnson serving up muted obbligatos behind Vaughan, each wonderfully anticipating the other's moves.
More adventurous is "I Love Brazil" (Pablo Today 2312-101), one of her best records in several years. In a collection of Brazilian songs by writers like Antonio Jobim, Milton Nascimento and Danillo Caymmi, she is backed by a string and brass ensemble and rhythem. Vaughan exudes an infectious joy throughout the whole album, whether she's spinning the regal melody of "The Day It Rained" or skipping through the whimsical "A Little Tear."
Vaughan's first album for Pablo, "How Long Has This Been Going On?" (Pablo 2310-821), is a shining achievement and a classic Granz production: a soloist surrounded by excellent musicians (pianist Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown, guitarist Joe Pass and drummer Louis Bellson), fine material to improvise on and skeletal arrangements.
This approach doesn't always work. Even good musicians sometimes have to discipline themselves, resulting in overlong, boring performances. But the method works here, and quite spectacularly on "More Than You Know."
It begins with Peterson's hushed Spanish motive introduction after which Vaughan delivers an elegant reading of the song's verse. Soaring into the main body, she employs breathtaking ascending phrases and unexpected and difficult octave jumps. She squeezes notes, sometimes sliding over them ever so gracefully.
In her first chorus, she merely paraphrases the melody. But after Peterson's solo, she does what few singers can do: improvise a new melody within a harmonic framework.
Nothing else on the record is as exciting, though there are rewarding moments -- the exquisite cadenza she sings ending "Easy-Living" or the effortless way she picks up Peterson's ascending block chord pattern on "I've Got the World on a String" and elaborates on it vocally.
Given the proper context, Vaughan can create unforgettable music. And she has some surprising ideas. She told Feather she'd like to perform with Country and Western guitarist Chet Atkins. She'd also like to record some operatic arias.
Granz could start by giving her more planning time for recording sessions and selecting her accompanists more carefully, thus avoiding the lackluster instrumental groups that sometimes choke her performances. And, most significantly, he should record Vaughan on her own terms and not force her into musical situations and material already covered by his favorite singer, Ella Fitzgerald.
Granz has a marvelous record-producing opportunity with Vaughan. If he makes the most of it, we'll all be richer.