Many jazz purists shy away from collections, opting for the artists' original CDs. But collections have their purpose. My first vocal jazz recording was on Columbia Records: Billie, Ella, Lena, Sarah. It led to my lifelong affection for jazz singers.
These Love Songs collections present three of the most distinctive American singers of the 20th century: Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne and Nina Simone. And what glorious music they made. It may come as a surprise to many today that once upon a time, when singers were not allowed to sing all night on record, they made personal, individual statements in three to four minutes.
Among jazz lovers, Sarah Vaughan is probably the most revered of these artists. Few would deny her place in the jazz pantheon. There is more debate, though, about the particulars of her art. Supremely gifted, she could sing anything she could imagine. At times, however, she succumbed to excess, her musical skill and the sumptuousness of her voice overwhelming that essential balance of melody, harmony and story. But when she plugged in completely, she was truly the Divine One.
In Love Songs, she is at the top of her game. On the best tracks, Vaughan, like so many of the great ones, anchors her lyricism and flights of harmonic fancy in the bedrock of jazz expression, a blues-rooted (and, sometimes, gospel-informed) sensibility. Listen carefully, for example, to "Come Rain or Come Shine" (her version, second only to Ray Charles'), "The Nearness of You" (a song which remained in her repertoire until the end), "After Hours" and "Street of Dreams". Don't miss the extended ending of "It Might as Well Be Spring", as well as Miles Davis' heartfelt introduction, or Vaughan's restrained, touching reading of "Goodnight My Love". As befits the project's theme, this collection culls 14 mostly ballad tracks from her '50s Columbia sessions, half of the songs recorded for these two projects. For the collector or die-hard fan, however, the complete sessions ( The Divine Sarah Vaughan: The Columbia Years ) remain available.
Lena Horne, a Vaughan contemporary, has stated that at the beginning of her career she couldn't really sing. She credits musicians like Charlie Barnet with teaching her lessons she learned well. She also discovered her own voice, her own sound. It is a pity that the Love Songs collection does not offer a truer portrait of her soulful, idiosyncratic art. She has said that she did come into her own until the blazing emergence of Aretha Franklin (in 1967) inspired her to, in her own words, "open up". But she was a soulful, moving singer even before Lady Soul redefined the female vocalist. That this collection does not portray Horne at her best falls on the shoulders of the producer, not the singer. For one thing, most of the medium to up-tempo tracks, although songs of romance, do not quite jibe with the series concept. Further, some of the arrangements are downright corny ("Love Me A Little", for example) or are hopelessly dated ("What Is This Thing Called Love"). What a pity there are no tracks from Lena: A New Album (originally released on RCA in 1976 with the Robert Farnon Orchestra and guest soloist Phil Woods).
Two of the most affecting tracks, "Let Me Love You" and "It's Love", were arranged by her husband, the great Lennie Hayton, for a small jazz ensemble. Here, Horne is in fine voice, relaxed. Hayton also contributed the glowing orchestral arrangement for "Like Someone in Love", while the underrated Marty Paich gave Horne a perfect setting for "I Only Have Eyes for You". Note the impeccable use of vibrato, the sagacious choice of notes, the serene phrasing and the lovely, long chest tones.
Arguably, the most exciting of the Love Songs CDs is Nina Simone's. Culled from her choice work for RCA from 1967 to 1974, it boasts a wide range of moods. The repertoire covers contemporary pop and rock, as well as Tin Pan Alley. Ironically, in 2004 Simone might be more readily considered a jazz singer than when these recordings were released. A generation ago, she caused confusion. Freed from the strictures of any one particular genre, however, Simone carved a niche and she pointed the way for others as well. Is it jazz in the traditional sense? Who cares?
Treasures abound here and kudos to Richard Seidel, the compilation producer, for such a careful, thoughtful job. This is a finely crafted portrait of a supremely gifted singer and pianist.
Space restrictions do not allow a close discussion of all the highlights. There is the required performance of one of her signature pieces, "I Loves You Porgy", a live rendition that does not disappoint. And then there is "Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You", a desert-island side and a full-bodied, boldly declaimed paean to love. So, too, is Simone's rhythmically exciting reimagining of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne", originally on her rock album To Love Somebody. Her tender side, already shown on "Porgy", is reinforced in a serene reading of Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well", where she taps the sad resignation at the song's core. And nowhere else on this set is the depth of love and hope lost as palpable as on "My Man's Gone Now" (DuBose Heyward's lyric to George Gershwin's aria from Porgy and Bess ), as she moves from moan to lament to howl.
Nina Simone's love songs are the most varied in these collections. Sarah Vaughan's may seem more conventional, but at the time of the recording, more than 50 years ago, she was the one setting the pace, inventing the conventions. Lena Horne's emit heat and light, when the settings allow and presage the later, more full-blooded work, culminating in her autobiographical Broadway show, Lena: The Lady and Her Music ; her 1969 session with Gabor Szabo and Gary McFarland; and the three '90s Blue Note discs.
These singers were fearlessly individual and opened their hearts virtually every time they sang.
Sarah Vaughan: The Nearness of You; Just Friends; Thinking of You; Come Rain or Come Shine; You're Mine, You; Street of Dreams; East of the Sun (West of the Moon); Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year; Black Coffee; My Reverie; After Hours; Deep Purple; It Might as Well Be Spring; Goodnight My Love
Lena Horne: Love Me Or Leave Me, The Man I Love (live), What Is This Thing Called Love?, At Long Last Love, Love Me a Little, It's Love, Someone to Watch Over Me, I Wanna Be Loved, People Will Say We're in Love, I Hadn't Anyone Till You, Like Someone in Love, I Concentrate on You, Let Me Love You, I Only Have Eyes for You
Nina Simone: I Loves You Porgy, Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You, Suzanne, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, In the Dark, I Get Along Without You Very Well, Cherish, To Love Somebody, In Love in Vain, Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair, The Look of Love, Just Like a Woman, My Man's Gone Now, Let It Be Me