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January/February 2003

Sarah Vaughan
The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions
Mosaic Records

Not even the heaviest of hitters can maintain a perfect batting average. When a ball player hits a slump, it's usually shrugged off as a temporary hiccup. When, however, a jazz singer makes what's perceived as a creative misstep, there's endless, and invariably excessive, gnashing of critical teeth.

Such was the case in 1958 when, at the tail end of her first spin with Mercury, Sarah Vaughan committed the seemingly heinous crime of scoring a massive crossover hit with the infectious "Broken-Hearted Melody." Naysayers descended like ravenous vultures, branding the once-divine one a sellout who was, shamefully, more interested in the commercial remuneration of the hit parade than the karmic rewards of cloistered jazz purism. Vaughan shrugged, secure in her own abilities, and trotted over to the fledgling Roulette label, then best known for Buddy Knox's brief string of rockabilly hits and for its alleged mob ties. Never one for long-term commitments, Vaughan stuck with Roulette for four years before hiking back to Mercury in 1964.

Her Roulette years would prove to be as checkered as they were prolific. Given the musical tenure of the time, with the popularity of pop and jazz singers fading faster than Eddie Fisher's marriage, it's remarkable that Vaughan released no fewer than 13 albums, all of which are now collected, along with some two dozen singles and unreleased tracks, on Mosaic's eight-disc box set. Critics, still sore at Vaughan for her pop dalliances and unwilling to lend the young label much jazz credence, kept their knives sharpened, lambasting (or worse, simply ignoring) her every Roulette turn. As the Mosaic box so ably demonstrates, such relentless negativity was only partially justified. It was both the best and the worst of times for Vaughan.

Several of her most ostentatious discs, dripping with strings, dressed up with ornate vocal hooks and clearly designed to cash in on her crossover appeal, surfaced between 1960 and 1963. Excessively flamboyant outings like The Explosive Side, Star Eyes and the particularly ill-advised Sarah Slightly Classical tended, however, to be the exception rather than the rule. This was also the era of the knockout You're Mine You, the breathtakingly austere After Hours, Vaughan's mistily minimalist sessions with Barney Kessel and Joe Comfort on Sarah + 2 and her sublime, subdued pairings with organists Ernie Freeman and Jack Wilson on Sarah Sings Soulfully.

Indeed, the beauty of the Mosaic box, apart from James Gavin's discriminating liner notes and the set's inclusion of a wealth of material previously unavailable on CD, is its similarity to Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates. From disc to disc you never know what you're going to get. To interpolate one of Vaughan's later album titles, it's a crazy and mixed up assortment of sugary trifles, creamy ballads and richly satisfying treasures.

Originally published in January/February 2003
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