Monday, November 10, 2008

Music Review: Sarah Vaughan & Woody Herman & His Orchestra-- On the Radio: The 1963 'Live' Guard Sessions


An accomplished keyboardist and singer whose first big break came when friends dared her to enter a contest at the Apollo Theatre, the endlessly versatile Sarah Vaughan who managed to tap into every style of jazz was posthumously described by Mel Torme as having "had the single best vocal instrument of any singer working in the popular field."

"One of the first singers to fully incorporate bop phrasing in her singing, and to have the vocal chops to pull it off on the level of a Parker and Gillespie," Sarah Vaughan was not only mentioned alongside Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as an artist who belonged "in the very top echelon of female jazz singers," but even Ms. Ella Fitzgerald went as far as to dub the "Divine Sarah" the world's "greatest singing talent."

While in the '50s, Vaughan ventured into the world of pop and standard recording which drew some flack from jazz purists before she would move back into the arena of jazz in the late '60s, Vaughan had a long and distinctly successful career in a genre that found too many artists perishing before their time. Playing "to sell-out crowds," when she was well into her 60s, Vaughan's "multi-octave range, with its swooping highs and sensual lows, and the youthful suppleness of her voice shaded by a luscious timbre and executed with fierce control..." found her slipping easily into the character of whatever song she was singing whether it was in the brilliant interpretation of "Whatever Lola Wants" from the Broadway musical Sweet Charity or in earlier legendary recordings of "If You Could See Me Now" or "Sassy" made each and every one of her recordings sound wondrously unique.

In this new and extraordinarily rare release from Acrobat Music Group bowing onto shelves and online through major retailers like Amazon tomorrow, we're offered "something of a collector's item," as the press release notes with the joint CD featuring "two of the biggest names in jazz and big band music in the post-war era," who nonetheless had never "made a commercial recording together." With Vaughan performing alongside Woody Herman and His Orchestra, this album, weaving together tracks which aired in 1963 "as part of a long-running public service series," that was sponsored by the U.S. National Guard in the aptly named Guard Sessions, we're presented with an intriguing mixture of nineteen songs.

Consisting of both Vaughan performing along with the orchestra as well as others simply featuring Herman in tandem with what they dubbed themselves on a 1963 album "The Swingin'est Big Band Ever," including one memorable solo track which finds Herman accompanying himself, it's an audible jolt back into the past. While, as in some of the other "Premier Collection" releases from Acrobat, the vintage commercial heavy banter between the annoying radio hosts and the musicians does grow old-- especially in this album as it seems as though the host gets on both Vaughan and Herman's nerves once or twice-- the music is first rate.

With Vaughan tackling such tunes as "Day In, Day Out," which provides a mesmerizing showcase for her multi-octave range as she draws the notes out, moving up and down the register, she's at her best in the album when signing the standards amidst classy and slower arrangements as the far too upbeat and swing tempo used in "But Not For Me," manages to pull the melancholy and wistful beauty out of Gershwin's lyrics and likewise with "I Cried For You." Thus, some of Vaughan's highlights when her voice finds its ideal match musically were in the beautiful "The More I See You," "On Green Dolphin Street," and "I'll Be Seeing You," that plays completely to the strengths of the incomparable "Divine Sarah" but one of the true standouts on this disc is surprisingly when Herman's orchestra goes off on their unique riffs.

As Downbeat Magazine wrote in 1963 in a quote referenced in the album's liner notes, "the band does perfectly what is called for in each case-- playing with fiery frenzy, cooking gently, or creating a mood," and this is evidenced throughout some of the phenomenal arrangements on the disc including the sophisticated "Midnight Sun," to the percussion heavy toe-tapper "Muskrat Ramble," along with the tune that makes you want to burst out in song, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Midway through the album, they return again with the catchy "At the Woodchopper's Ball," and later power through a stirring interpretation of "Mo-Lasses," which, coupled with the rest of their albums make you want to go back and hunt down more from the group.

While it's of particular interest for fans of Sarah and a great recorded "portrait" of a time and place, ultimately there's a little too much forced conversation on this album when most of us are craving music and although worth a listen, Vaughan devotees will probably do best to listen to her more polished solo recordings.

Track Listing

1. Introduction, Go With The National Guard Jingle
2. S. Vaughan w/ Woody Herman-Day In, Day Out
3. Advert & Talk
4. Woody Herman & His Orchestra-Midnight Sun
5. S. Vaughan w/ Woody Herman-But Not For Me
6. Woody Herman & His Orchestra-Muskrat Ramble
7. Conversation & Introduction
8. W. Herman & Orch.-Don't Get Around Much Anymore
9. S. Vaughan w/ Woody Herman-The More I See
10. S. Vaughan w/ W. Herman-On Green Dolphin Street
11. Woody Herman & Orch.-At The Woodchopper's Ball
12. S. Vaughan w/ W. Herman-Just One Of Those Things
13. W. Herman & His Orch.-Don't Go With Strangers
14. S. Vaughan w/ W. Herman-I'll Be Seeing You
15. Woody Herman & His Orchestra-Four Brothers
16. Woody Herman & His Orchestra- Mo-Lasses
17. S. Vaughan w/ Woody Herman-I Cried For You
18. S. Vaughan w/ W. Herman-Poor Butterfly
19. Woody Herman & His Orchestra-The Preacher