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Sarah Vaughan performs during the International Jazz Festival of Nice in southeast France in July 1984. (AFP/Getty Images)

Sarah Vaughan: A New Box Set Revels In Glorious Imperfections

May 20, 2013 (Fresh Air)

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Singer Sarah Vaughan came up in the 1940s alongside bebop lions Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, starting out in Earl Hines' big band. Hines had hired her as his singer and deputy pianist, while Gillespie praised her fine ear for chords as she grasped the arcane refinements of bebop harmony. Vaughan put them to good use as a singer, picking notes other vocalists wouldn't.

A lot of jazz singing is about consonants — the percussive attacks from which the music swings. With Vaughan, it's also about the way she rolled out her vowels, reveling in a held note like Miles Davis. Later, her vibrato could get excessive, but in the mid-'50s her taste and control were a marvel. That much is clear from a new anthology of Vaughan titled Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958. (In that period, she was recording pop albums with strings, using some of the same tunes.) It's six albums-plus on four CDs, recorded live or in the studio with bands big and small. All but one session is sparked by another bebop institution, drummer Roy Haynes. He achieves a springy beat using brushes, and doesn't overplay.

Vaughan had a gallery of vocal timbres: gravelly to silky, round or strident, white-gloved or blues-drenched. Her pitch range was operatic and her low notes have uncommon power. She drew inspiration from great soloists and gave it right back — notably in a loose session with trumpeter Clifford Brown, with whom she trades phrases on "April in Paris."

Two live albums from Chicago nightclubs are standouts, partly for their glorious imperfections. Vaughan didn't know some of the material so well, taking lyric sheets on stage, and she sometimes had to improvise her way out of trouble. Recording in the wee hours at the London House, she keeps bobbling the start of the last tune of the night, "Thanks for the Memory" — particularly when she hits the word "Parthenon." But with every take, her entrance gets more elaborate.

If anything, she sounds more focused and at ease after two false starts — at least till she blows another line, and does her best to spoil the full take. (That just made it more of a keeper.) The live dates in Divine show how a great improviser can always recover from a tailspin. The beboppers were big on that: putting the wrongest note in a context where it sounds like the perfect thing.

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