My favorite Sarah Vaughan album is a live date recorded in 1958. It's After Hours at the London House, and Sassy's voice is at its absolute peak. She's backed by sidemen from Count Basie's band, who deliver sterling laid-back performances. And the club's energetic ambiance only enhances the recording's you-are-there intensity.
Most importantly, After Hours includes what I regard as the definitive version of Detour Ahead and an impossibly great Speak Low. There's also a lovely and lyrical Thanks for the Memory, complete with touching mistakes and strong accompanying solos. After Hours has it all and is an audio time capsule capturing what it must have been like to see this artform at one of its most defining moments.
The album was recorded at Chicago's London House on March 7, 1958. Sarah climbed onto the stage at 2:30 am, after having already performed three sets that night across town at Mister Kelly's. (Back in August 1957, she had recorded a live album at Mister Kelly's with just a trio, and in January 1958 she had recorded part of the album called No Count Sarah with members of the Count Basie Orchestra, completing the session 10 months later in December.)
In March 1958, the invitation-only audience at the London House was made up of entertainers and photographers from Life magazine and Mercury Records. According to the album's linter notes, the session was completely improvised—Sarah had just a handful of sheet music and lyric sheets—making this date even more fabulous.
In addition to Sarah's working trio of Ronnell Bright on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, a clutch of Basie band members were crammed onto the club's tiny stage. The sidemen that night included Thad Jones, Henry Coker, Frank Wess and Wendell Culley. According to Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, band members appear to have been available for the date as Basie tended to family business following the death of his father.
For me, the instrumental stars on this date were Ronnell Bright and Roy Haynes. Bright demonstrates impeccable taste as an accompanist, putting down lush chord after lush chord on ballads while keeping a rock-solid beat on up-tempo numbers. Roy Haynes is constantly doing something interesting on drums, rhythmically egging Sarah on to take greater and greater chances—and she does, executing perfectly.
From Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan (1993) by Leslie Gourse:
"Jimmy Jones decided to leave Sassy's group and concentrate on writing and arranging; at the end of 1957, he was replaced by pianist Ronnell Bright. Bright had been playing with the Johnny Pate trio at the Steamliner in Chicago in 1956 when he first me Sassy. It wasn't until the next year that she really paid attention to Ronnell. He had gone to New York, where John Hammond had heard him and arranged for him to play at the Embers, a fashionable Upper East Side supper club. Willard Alexander took over Ronnell's bookings and sent him to Storyville in Boston, where he alternated sets with Sassy for two weeks. Four months later, George [Treadwell, Sarah's manager and husband], who had never met Ronnell Bright, called, at Sassy's request, to ask him to replace Jimmy Jones.
One of Ronnell's first recordings with her was done live at the London House in Chicago, at a time when albums were rarely done live. Sassy began singing Thanks for the Memory; when she came to the word Parthenon, she started toying with it. 'Parthenon? Parthenon" Parthenon...I don't get this word here...Parthenon...one more time, and we can go home...PartheNON....'
Speak Low was an excellent example of how slowly Sassy could sing and require her group to play. Her accompanists often mentioned they felt as if eons were passing between each note, but she was singing ballads at exactly the right tempo to create the atmospheric sound she needed to express the full feeling of the lyrics. She might use her high, pure soprano or her mature, resonant contralto; her varied sounds were often the messages of the songs."
What Gourse overlooks is that when Sarah blows her lyrics on Thanks for the Memory and comes to a screeching halt—twice—Bright re-starts the song differently each time, showing off just how beautifully he could play as an accompanist.
Yet Detour Ahead remains the album's stunner. It's flawless, from Ronnell Bright's rich intro to Haynes final drum roll. Sarah crawls inside this song and delivers its knowing and innocent lyrics.
Bill Evans' version from Waltz for Debby is certainly another heart-stopper. But to fully appreciate this song, you really have to hear Sarah kittenishly deliver the lyrics: "Turn back while there's time, can't you see the danger sign: Soft shoulders...surround you." Wow.
Wax tracks: Sarah Vaughan: After Hours at the London House is available at iTunes, but I recommend owning the CD. It's an album that has to be heard from start to finish, just as it was played out in the wee hours of March 7, 1958. You can buy it, remastered, here for $12.
If you want to hear Sarah in January and December 1958 backed by the Basie band, I strongly recommend downloading Moonlight in Vermont, Darn that Dream and Stardust at iTunes. All are from the EmArcy album No Count Sarah, which isn't available at iTunes. But you can cherry-pick these selections out by simply typing in "Sarah Vaughan" and locating the songs alphabetically.
All three songs are wonderful executions and will leave you tingly. The rest of No Count Sarah is pretty thin, so you won't miss anything by not grabbing the rest of it.
Wax videoclip: To hear Sarah Vaughan in all of her 1958 magnificence, go here for Somewhere Over the Rainbow. This was her year—before she was shoved into recording tons of misconceived junk in a blind, frantic bid for commercial fame.
Just listen to what she does with Over the Rainbow's melody. Watch how she uses her head to deliver the mood, and notice her arms moving uncontrollably in sync with the time— remember, she was the piano player in Earl Hines' and Billy Eckstine's great bands of 1943-1944. And listen to Ronnell Bright's dense accompanying chords.
In 1958, Sassy couldn't be beat.
STARTING TOMORROW: Part one of my three-part interview with legendary jazz vibraphonist Teddy Charles!
From burlesque to Juilliard...from the East Coast to the West Coast...Teddy Charles shares stories from the 1950s—and the fight between Mingus and Elvin Jones over a copyist mistake that nearly halted a Miles Davis recording session.