Sarah Vaughan: Live at Rosy’s

SarahVaughan_LiveAtRosysA vocal legend live in New Orleans in 1978

By 1978, Sarah Vaughan was standing at the confluence of nearly a decade of renewal. Her rebirth began with a shift to the West Coast in 1970, and included new recording contracts, first with Mainstream and later with Pablo, the 1972 introduction of “Send in the Clowns” to her repertoire, orchestral performances of the Gershwin catalog that netted her both an Emmy and a Grammy, and a 1978 documentary, Listen to the Sun. That same year, NPR’s Jazz Alive! caught Vaughan in this New Orleans showcase with her stellar rhythm trio of pianist Carl Schroeder, drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Walter Booker.

At 54, Vaughan was at a peak of artistic vision, vocal quality and technical control, and is nearly telepathic is communicating with her well-seasoned band. Her extraordinary vocal range was completely intact, and age had only added new shadings to a voice that was born rich with character. The set list was stocked primarily with the standards that had long been her metier, but her improvisational skills made every rendition fresh and seem extemporaneous. The original multitrack masters of her show at Rosy’s Jazz Club, including previously unbroadcast performances, remained in the collection of the show’s original procuer, Tim Owens, until this first-ever commercial release.

Vaughan is heard here to be uncommonly at ease on stage, joking with the audience and even riffing on Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket” in response to a wayward request. But when she sings, she’s all business, whether revving up the ballad “I’ll Remember April” into a scat-singing showcase, or stretching out with the band on the side one closer, “Sarah’s Blues.” The dazzling energy of her fast numbers is often paired with ballads whose tempos provide opportunity for exquisitely manicured notes. The control she exerts over pitch and tone is incredible as she annotates the smooth, beautiful core of her voice with vibrato.

There’s never any doubt who’s starring on stage (despite Vaughan’s habit of jokingly introducing herself as Carmen McCrae), but she was generous with her band, offering them spotlights and weaving their musical ideas into her vocals. The trio setting provides a flexible and surprisingly rich setting for Vaughan, allowing her to improvise and have the band follow, instead of weaving herself into a larger ensemble’s charted arrangement. Her voice provides both a lead a a fourth instrument, and pairs beautifully with Booker’s bass for a duet of “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon).”

The set list reaches back to Vaughan’s earliest days for Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Time After Time,” stretching into high notes that soar with operatic splendor. Disc one peaks with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” stripped of Paul Griffin’s 1974 pop arrangement, and expanded into a tour de force ballad. The song would eventually cap Vaughan’s live sets, but by 1978 it was already a deeply emotional moment for both the singer and her audience. The only thing missing from this recording is the ovation that must have followed. Disc one closes with the instrument jam “Sarah’s Blues,” showing off how high this band could fly.

Disc two includes two pieces from Vaughan’s Gershwin songbook, the signature “The Man I Love” and a take on “Fascinating Rhythm” that somehow manages to break into a minuet. A pair of Rodgers & Hart songs showcase two very different sides of the group: “I Could Write a Book” swings as the band vamps behind Vaughan’s improvised lyrics, while “My Funny Valentine” searches for new layers and shadings in a familiar melody. Continual renewal was key to Vaughan’s stage greatness, and it made her chestnuts tower ever higher, year after year.

The one then-new piece in the set was “If You Went Away,” from Vaughan’s album I Love Brazil!, and while it’s a nice addition, it’s almost as if Vaughan needed to sing it for a decade or two before she’d really start to plumb its depths. Vaughan picked material that stood up to reappraisal and reinterpretation, and it’s fascinating to hear how her own approach to songs changed over decades of exploration. But unlike the Groundhog Day chase of a single perfect day, Vaughan’s perfection was ephemeral and of-the-moment, and captured in uniquely colored performances like this.

The trio disbanded the following year, amid Vaughan’s marriage to Waymond Reed, and Reed’s promotion to bandleader. Vaughan continued to perform and record through the 1980s, but this late-70s date stands at an especially strong point in her career. Resonance’s two disc set is housed in a three-panel digipack, with a 36-page booklet that includes essays from music journalists Will Friedwald and James Gavin, remembrances from Carl Schroeder and club owner Rosalie Wilson, and interviews with Jimmy Cobb and Vaughan’s labelmate Helen Merrill. It’s a rich package, but it’s a swinging trio, their finely selected repertoire and the Divine One that really make this set sing. [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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