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Music

Sarah Vaughan's Magnificent Voice Reigns In 'Live At The Berlin Philharmonie'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A concert performance by singer Sarah Vaughan from 1969 has been newly released. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Vaughan resisted stylistic labels that might limit her options. And on the most ambitious of these performances, jazz, pop and classical sensibilities commingle. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOT OF LIVIN' TO DO (LIVE AT THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIE 1969 - 2021 REMASTERED)")

SARAH VAUGHAN: (Singing) And there's wine just ready for tasting, Cadillacs shiny and new. Got to move. Time is a-wasting. Got a lot of living to do. There's music to play, places to go, people to see, everything for you and me. Life's a ball if only you show it, and it's all waiting for you. You're alive. Come on, and show it. Got a lot of living to do.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Sarah Vaughan from "Live At The Berlin Philharmonie 1969," on two CDs - two 40-minute sets from the label The Lost Sessions (ph). Vaughan was then between record contracts and the commercial pressures that go with them. Like other musicians schooled in bebop, Vaughan liked fast and very slow tempos. And here, she really stretches out on the slow tunes. She was a virtuoso of vibrato, varying its speed or width or intensifying that shape the longer she holds a note or withholding it all together for a plaintive effect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TENDERLY (LIVE AT THE BERLIN PHILHARMONIE 1969 - 2021 REMASTERED)")

VAUGHAN: (Singing) Then you and I came wandering by. And lost in a sigh were we. The shore...

WHITEHEAD: One of Sarah Vaughan's signature songs "Tenderly." Most adult jazz and pop singers favor the classic American songbook, but Vaughan was no snob about '60s music if it was sophisticated enough. In Berlin in 1969, she sings a Paul McCartney ballad, two tunes by pop songwriter Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Alfie," taking great liberties with that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALFIE")

VAUGHAN: (Singing) Oh, I believe in love, Alfie. Without true love we just exist, Alfie. Until you find...

WHITEHEAD: Sarah Vaughan had a voice suitable for high opera. Her rich, full contralto could scoop down into the baritone range and ascend to the heights. She combined an operatic sense of drama and vocal color and control with an improvisor's risk-taking, boldly remaking written melodies. That could result in some strikingly daring music, like this sequence from the 1947 tune "Time After Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME AFTER TIME")

VAUGHAN: (Singing) So lucky to be the one you run to see in the evening when the day is through (ph). I only know...

WHITEHEAD: That gets so abstract, melody and lyrics fall away. It's about pure musicality, not the song. There is a perfunctory air about some up-tempo pieces on Sarah Vaughan's 1969 Berlin concerts. She races through a few songs in more ways than one, wrapping them up in two minutes. Vaughan does show off her playful side and attention to a lyric on the Trolley Song, a meet-cute number from the Judy Garland musical "Meet Me In St. Louis." There, her trio do a little of what Hollywood calls Mickey Mousing, where the music closely tracks the story's action.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROLLEY SONG")

VAUGHAN: (Singing) Chugga-chugga-chugga (ph) went the motor. Bump, bump, bump went the brakes. Thump, thump, thump went my heartstrings. When he smiled, I could feel the car shake. He tipped his hat. He took a seat. He said he hoped he hadn't stepped upon my feet. He asked my name. I held my breath - couldn't speak because he scared me half to death. Buzz went the buzzer. Plop, plop, plop went the wheel. Stop, stop, stop went my heartstrings. He started to go, and I started to know how it feels when the universe reels.

WHITEHEAD: Sarah Vaughan's accompanists here are little-known in jazz - pianist John Veith, bassist Gus Mancuso and drummer Ed Pucci. At least a couple of them worked in Las Vegas for a while. The trio was well-drilled and crisp, but stays in the background. It's not like anybody came to hear the band. Sarah Vaughan had one of the magnificent voices of the 20th century, and she put it through extraordinary paces. Then she might turn around and swing a show tune with a light touch. She could do both and everything in between.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER")

VAUGHAN: (Singing) On a clear day, rise and look around you. And you'll see who you are. On a clear day, how it will astound you with the glow of your being outshines every star. You'll feel part of every mountain, sea and shore. You can hear from far and near a world you've never heard before. And on a clear day, on that clear day, you can see forever and evermore. On a clear day...

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed Sarah Vaughan, "Live At The Berlin Philharmonie 1969."

On tomorrow's show, The New York Times' Adam Goldman reports on an undercover effort by conservatives to infiltrate progressive groups, political campaigns and the offices of Democratic and moderate Republican elected officials. At the heart of the operation were a former British spy and security contractor Erik Prince, an avid supporter of Donald Trump. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER")

VAUGHAN: (Singing) And on a clear day, on that... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.