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Sarah Vaughan: Roulette Years

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Sarah Vaughan Jazz artsts' recordings in the late 1950s and early '60s were often a direct reflection of their labels' budgets, producers' visions and arrangers' whims. Count Basie, for example, sounded a bit stiff and buttoned up on Verve but unleashed on Roulette. Sonny Stitt sounded thought out and on point on Roost but a bit let's-get-this-over-with on many of his Prestige sessions. In keeping with this line of thinking, I've always loved Sarah Vaughan on Roulette. Working with producers Teddy Reig and Henry Glover, Vaughan had a relaxed, shimmering jazz-pop sound on those albums—more in control than her earlier Mercury recordings and more youthful than her LPs for same label afterward.

Recorded between April 1960 and July 1963, this is “Sassy in the Land of JFK." On the 16 LPs she recorded during this tight three-year period, you can hear a soaring sense of optimism in her voice, a jazz sound that adapted perfectly to the modern era. By 1960, Vaughan no longer had anything to prove. She was established as both a jazz legend and a pop vixen. Comfortable in her own skin, Vaughan weaves through songs with a clear sense of herself as a songstress and storyteller who was on par with Nat Cole.

The reason I mention all of this is that Mosaic it appears is still selling The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions. This is one of those boxes that once it disappears, buyers will be telling themselves two things: “I didn't know it was still in print, and now that it's gone I wish I had grabbed it when I could."

The best thing about the Roulette years is the wide range of arrangers who were teamed with her. The list included Jimmy Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Quincy Jones, Don Costa [pictured], Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson and Lalo Schifrin.

This set kicks off with a grandly remastered Dreamy (April 1960) and The Divine One (October 1960), which are among Jimmy Jones' finest vocal arranging dates. Vaughan is at her meowing best here, working patiently through gems like The More I See You, Crazy He Calls Me, Serenata and I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life.

Next was Count Basie-Sarah Vaughan (January 1961), which featured mostly Thad Jones arrangements. Interestingly, the best chart on the session (and perhaps in the box) is Frank Foster's Little Man You've Had a Busy Day. Then again I'm always a sucker for flutes on top. It's so beautifully arranged you'd swear there were strings.

After Hours (July 1961) featured only guitarist Mundell Lowe and bassist George Duvivier. Instead of working harder than necessary to sing instrumentally, Vaughan relaxes and lets her enormous range and hearth-like timbre rule. Mundy and Duvivier here provide exceptional accompanist lines. The highlight is the touching My Favorite Things, my personal favorite rendition of this standard.

Quincy Jones' You're Mine You session (January 1962) is massively big, draping Vaughan in the musical equivalent of mink. There are French horns, strings—the works. The influence of Nelson Riddle is strong—particularly on Witchcraft, The Second Time Around and The Best Is Yet to Come (listen how she turns this one inside out melodically). Baubles, Bangles and Beads also is dynamic. Interestingly, Jones seems to have used the same One Mint Julep chart he wrote for Ray Charles on Genius + Soul = Jazz a year earlier.

Snowbound (July 1962), arranged by Don Costa, was a sweeping orchestral album aimed at cold-weather, candlelight-and-drinks couples. The title track is twinkly and impossibly cuddly. The same goes for Glad to Be Unhappy and one of the most exciting versions of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most. And dig the oddly interesting Blah, Blah Blah by the Gershwins.

There are only two musicians behind Vaughan on Sarah + 2 (August 1962)—guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Joe Comfort. Vaughan works incredibly well here in a setting that's on par with After Hours. But rather than offering a late night romantic mood, things are a little peppier. Just in Time, When Lights Are Low and Key Largo are prime examples.

The Explosive Side (August 1962) was a Benny Carter date, with Vaughan handing a mix of pop and jazz material with carefully chosen Los Angeles jazz players. The arrangements are novel and challenging, with intricate intros offering little clue about the songs ahead. What's most noticeable here is how effortlessly Vaughan double-clutches and wriggles through traffic vocally—particularly on Moonlight on the Ganges, A Garden in the Rain and The Trolley Song.

Marty Manning's Star Eyes (February 1963) string session leads with Vaughan's great version of the title track. Here you also have spectacular renditions of Don't Go to Strangers, Call Me Irresponsible and I Was Telling Him About You.

Slightly Classical (March 1963) shouldn't work but it does, to a certain extent. These are classically based songs with lyrics. The lineup includes transgenre effforts such as My Reverie and Intermezzo. A strange fit for Vaughan, but you do get to hear her chops in a completely different milieu. And there's something so relaxing about the tracks. And dig I Give to You, which is arranged like Theme From A Summer Place.

Vaughan shifts gears on Sings Soulfully (May 1963). Supported by Gerald Wilson's arrangements, the singer is backed by a sextet with the Hammond organ (Ernie Freeman) playing a prominent role. Vaughan digs deep on smart choices such as A Taste of Honey, What Kind of Fool Am I, Sermonette, The Good Life, 'Round Midnight and Easy Street. All have a loping ballad feel.

The Lonely Hours (June 1963) was arranged by Benny Carter, who again serves up unusual twists to songs, as though purposefully challenging Vaughan. Dig the interaction between Vaughan and the French horns and tuba on Always on My Mind. Or the embracing string writing on The Man I Love. Or the dramatic build on Friendless.

Sweet 'n' Sassy (June 1963) is the final LP session. Handled by Lalo Schifrin, the album was probably the most uneven matching between the singer and arranger. However, there are a few highlights such as Just You Just Me and Thanks for the Ride.

To be fair, there are some duds in this set—but they are few. In between her album sessions, Roulette recorded her for singles. Most were a complete miss. These were arranged by Billy May, Joe Reisman and Marty Manning. Neither jazz, pop or soul, they emerge as rough fits.

For too long, Sarah Vaughan's Roulette LPs have been largely dismissed like polyester upholstery or low-cal soda. In truth, these are solid works in the stereo age, when Vaughan was at her late jazz peak and just before her diva years. In fact, she was age 36-38 during the sessions. Like the cars of this period, think of the recordings as Vaughan with fins.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the eight-CD set The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions (Mosaic) here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Sarah Vaughan with Mundell Lowe and Geroge Duvivier on In a Sentimental Mood from After Hours...