Featuring some of Sarah Vaughan’s last truly transcendent moments, this pair of 1980 Pablo releases devoted to the work of Duke Ellington reminds us in reissue form what wonders her voice and this material still hold.
Yet Vaughan, before signing with Norman Granz’s 1970s-era label, had somehow been without a recording contract for some three years. Granz, who had first encountered Vaughan’s stunning operatic power at a 1946 edition of the his legendary Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in Carnegie Hall, proceeded to surround her with a sterling group of like-minded collaborators, including Zoot Sims, Bucky Pizzarelli, J.J. Johnson, Grady Tate, Joe Pass, Jimmy Rowles, Frank Foster, Pee Wee Crayton, Frank Wess and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, among others. The gather in configurations both large and small, mirroring Granz’s earlier songbook features for Ella Fitzgerald in the Verve years, giving this set the feel of a companion piece.
Interestingly, Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection, arriving August 20, 2013 from Concord Music Group, has been expanded to include six previously unheard, lush and enveloping tracks arranged by Benny Carter on August 13, 1979. Those terrific finds now open this new double-disc set, which is presented in chronological order by the date the songs were recorded. The Carter sides aren’t alternative takes, mind you, but brand new versions of the title track, “Lush Life,” “Day Dream,” “In a Sentimental Mood, “Solitude” and “Tonight I Shall Sleep (Wish a Smile on My Face)” — with the ever-lyrical Sims as the featured soloist.
Sessions continued through three more dates in August, as Vaughan and Co. offered completely different approaches on “Sophisticated Lady” (which nicely features Wess), “Solitude” (the lesser of her two tries) and “Day Dream” (a showcase for Vaughan’s husband Waymon Reed on trumpet) two dates later, then six more songs including “Chelsea Bridge” and a dramatic, emotional take on “Mood Indigo” from August 27. There would be two more sessions in September, including separate versions of “Sentimental Mood,” a truly haunting “Lush Life” and the Duke/Mercer Ellington collaboration “Tonight I Shall Sleep” — to say nothing of a rollicking overhaul of “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” with the Billy Byers Big Band — before five songs were put to tape over two days in late January of 1980. The highlight there remains a bluesy take on “Rocks in My Bed,” featuring Vinson, Crayton and pianist Lloyd Glenn.