"Live from Rosy's...The Divine One, Sarah Vaughan!" So begins Resonance Records and NPR Music's new release, Live at Rosy's. It would take an extraordinary talent to live up to that sobriquet, but throughout her career, Sarah Vaughan certainly did. Live at Rosy's is the first commercial release of Vaughan's May 31, 1978 performances at the New Orleans nightspot, recorded for NPR's Jazz Alive program and presented here as remastered from the original eight multitrack reels. Vaughan was backed by Carl Schroeder on piano, Walter Booker on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums for a set that's both intimate and larger-than-life.
The Newark, New Jersey-born vocalist, nicknamed "Sassy" as well as "The Divine One," had been a mainstay on records since the mid-1940s. Columbia and Mercury largely molded her as a pop ballad singer, but she yearned to sing jazz, and did so successfully for the latter's Emarcy imprint. A stint at Roulette earned her more pop success before she was signed by Quincy Jones - another now-legendary talent to have successfully straddled the realms of pop and jazz - once more to Mercury. She departed the label a second time in 1967 and remained a free agent until her old friend Bob Shad entered the picture and signed her to Mainstream Records in 1971. At Mainstream, she recorded tunes by Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, John Sebastian, and Carly Simon, adding a heavy dollop of R&B to her pop and jazz-oriented sensibility.
At Rosy's, Vaughan adhered mainly to a standards-based program, but incorporated a handful of more modern compositions. She was in the middle of her latest label affiliation, Norman Granz's Pablo Records, for whom she would record six albums in the short 1977-1979 span. Both Cobb and Schroeder were longtime allies who appeared with her on the triumphant 1973 Live in Japan album; Walter Booker was a bop mainstay who had supported another first-tier vocalist, Betty Carter, prior to joining Sassy's trio. Just seven selections are repeated from the landmark double-LP set, making this new release even more indispensable.
The many sides of the artist and her rangy, expressive voice (including its unmistakable vibrato) are on display here as she tackles the work of composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Marcos Valle, and nearly everyone in between. Naturally, her signature tunes are present, such as "Poor Butterfly," a 1916 tune which she made her own at Mercury (it gets applause at the mention of the title) and "I Remember You." Both are fine and even fresh, with no sign of an artist going through the motions. Vaughan's penchant for reinvention is evident throughout - in fact, from the opening song, as she scats up a storm on a fast and furious romp through "I'll Remember April."
The Broadway songbook is well-represented, as on the spirited and fun performance of "A Lot of Livin' to Do" from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams might have been gently spoofing rock-and-roll with the tune, but ended up writing a piece durable and malleable enough to withstand treatments in various genres, including Sassy's swingin' take. A pair of Rodgers and Hart tunes are both, well, divine: a loose, sped-up version of Pal Joey's "I Could Write a Book" and a languid, voice-and-piano "My Funny Valentine" in which the singer digs into each nuance of Hart's words.
The music of the Gershwins was a Vaughan staple throughout her career, from beginning to end. Here, she surveys three of George's tunes (two with Ira's lyrics). The ebullient "Somebody Loves Me" (lyrics by Buddy DeSylva and Ballard MacDonald) gets a brisk run-through. The ballad "The Man I Love" is also "jazzed up" but deeply felt all the same, and "Fascinating Rhythm" comes complete with a Jimmy Cobb drum break leading into an exultant scat solo, plus a mannered, baroque interlude! (Vaughan was clearly fascinated by all types of rhythms!)
One of Vaughan's latter-day specialties was her rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. By 1978 it had already achieved standard status (and a Song of the Year Grammy Award) via Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins' recordings. Sassy slows it down to a crawl so as to wring every drop of emotion from Sondheim's incisive lyrics, her quivering vibrato oozing resignation; she also bends the contours of the tune (strikingly in an a cappella section) without ever compromising the notes for flash or effect. In short, her performance at Rosy's is a master class of interpretive singing. Another dramatic highlight is Benard Ighner's "Everything Must Change," a favorite of "singer's singers" also memorably recorded by Collins, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, and too many others to mention
From Hollywood, Vaughan tackled a couple of Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn compositions: a dusky "I Fall in Love Too Easily" (Anchors Aweigh, 1944) in which she languidly bends and savors each note of the reflective ballad, and a tender "Time After Time" (It Happened in Brooklyn, 1947). She also skips forward to 1964 to take Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy's "Watch What Happens" from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg all the way to Cool School.
Sarah's sense of humor is evident on the playful band intros, or when she quotes "Pop Goes the Weasel" mid-"Like Someone in Love." But it's nowhere more pronounced than later in the concert when a wag in the audience requests "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," the little ditty so famously associated with another pioneering African-American jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald! But Sarah takes it in stride, calling on a bit of her, well, sass to quip, "Well, I'll be damned!" and then "[He] thinks I'm Lena Horne, huh?"...before delivering a verse of the song with humor and gusto.
Even a powerhouse like Vaughan would be adrift without sympathetic support, however, which her band most certainly provided. Spotlights for the trio heard here include "East of the Sun (West of the Moon)" reinvented as a slinky bass-and-voice duet with Booker, "Fascinating Rhythm" with Cobb's break, and the lengthy, in-the-moment "Sarah's Blues," featuring solo turns from all three band members and more dynamic scatting. Schroeder's sensitive piano, so attuned to Vaughan's liquid style, anchors much of the evening.
Resonance has packaged Live at Rosy's with its usual flair. A thick, 36-page booklet boasts an introduction by producer Zev Feldman as well as incisive appreciations from Will Friedwald and James Gavin. A 2013 note from club proprietor Rosy Wilson joins a tribute from Carl Schroeder, an interview with Jimmy Cobb, and a chat with Sarah Vaughan's contemporary, singer Helen Merrill, to round out the impressive array of reading material.
Live at Rosy's is a timely reminder of the interpretive powers and enormous musicality of the late Sarah Vaughan. Isn't it bliss?