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Dinah Washington: The Complete Roulette Dinah Washington Recordings

As a maniacal completist, I’m a sucker for box sets. But box sets are like beautifully wrapped gifts. Size, and fancy casing, can be deceiving. Big packages don’t always come with enough good things. Too often I’ve been lured by slick cover art and the promise of voluminous, book-shaped liner notes, only to discover that the multiple discs deliver little or nothing that my CD library doesn’t already contain. Which is, I assume, why God created Mosaic. As any jazz fan with a taste for impeccable quality knows, Mosaic’s limited-edition sets are, unfailingly, sublime realization of substance over style.

Most of the Mosaic catalogue is devoted to instrumentalists. There is, however, a cozy corner of the Mosaic world reserved for vocalists that includes thick career slices of Anita O’Day, Mildred Bailey, Sarah Vaughan and the Four Freshmen. All maintain pride of place on my shelves. Now added to that select roster is this all-encompassing, five-disc salute-complete with meticulous biographical and session notes from Nadine Cohodas (author of the definitive Washington biography, Queen, published last year)-to the three final years of Dinah’s sadly brief career, spent at Morris Levy’s Roulette label.

The Complete Roulette Sessions covers the eight albums’ worth of material Washington recorded between March 1962 and October 1963 (just two months prior to her death at age 39). They comprise 94 tracks, including 16 that have never previously been released on CD and an additional eight that have never before been issued in any format (top among them, a 20-minute medley that, for the first time on disc, captures the after-hours, shoes-off, just-me-and-the-band magic of her live dates)-a virtual gusher for devotees who have, over the years, already shelled out big bucks for those seven three-disc sets (now, unfortunately, all out of print) that spanned her entire 1946-1961 Mercury output.

There are those who dismiss Washing-ton’s Roulette years as her musically weakest, suggesting that she’d sold her soul to achieve, at Levy’s behest, more mainstream recognition. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that Washington had only become a major crossover artist a couple of years prior to her arrival at Roulette, with the massive popularity of her 1959 recording of “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” and the pair of Top 10 duets with Brook Benton-“Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes)” and “Rockin’ Good Way (to Mess Around and Fall In Love)”-that followed in 1960. And, yes, it’s obvious by the lush Fred Norman, Don Costa and Marty Manning arrangements that wrapped (and, occasionally smothered) Washington’s Roulette sessions like the mink stoles she was so fond of, that Levy was aiming her toward a market segment broader than the soul- and jazz-oriented crowds that had shaped and defined her Mercury ascent.

But I consider Washington’s Roulette output among her most intriguing, for it stands as proof that you could feed her a steady diet of standards and pop tunes (mixed, admittedly, with several classic blues numbers) while engulfing her in sticky strings and soaring brass, and yet never suffocate the gritty lass with the indomitable spirit-a heady blend of trouble-I’ve-seen blues and peppery joie de vivre-and the inimitable phrasing that, no matter how plush the setting, always sounded like she was hungrily, unapologetically tearing chunks from a bloody, inch-thick T-bone. Listen to the world-weary, sagacious spark she brings to “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Good Life” or any of several dozen others and you’ll know that this isn’t the cognac-smooth coziness of Nat Cole or Johnny Mathis but rather a slick chick on the mellow side, contented with her gin.

Originally Published