When I was 28, Sarah Vaughan was in the prime of her life. I saw her in New York a half-dozen times, along with Shirley Horn, who returned in the early ’90s. Additionally, Benny Carter all through those years, not to mention Dizzy, Miles, George Coleman, Bobby Watson, and Wayne Shorter—we’re talking about a time in jazz when a lot of our icons were here putting people in the room. We’ve lost more than half of these great artists. My influences are those “modern ancestors” and a result of that time. I had the wonderful gift and honor of being in the room, privy to the sound, privy to the expression and creativity.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all the songs in Carmen Lundy’s Artist’s Choice:
Songs in the Key of Life (Motown, 1976)
I was a sophomore jazz major at the University of Miami when it came out. I just loved the way that song kept modulating, and it’s like, “How does he do that?” At that time I was so immersed in identifying with Ella and I was getting into Sarah too. So when Stevie released that as a twentysomething-year-old just coming of age with a certain perspective on life that was in his lyrics, with a very honest and soulful way of singing, it was like, “Oh, maybe it’s okay to do this too.” There was something about his suspended chords and other choices you don’t hear a lot of in bebop. At the same time it was complex, yet it was also simple enough that anyone could hum along or dance.
Antonio Carlos Jobim
The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim (Warner Bros., 1965)
It has this urgent need to express a certain emotion and truth in the moment. He’s asking, “What can I say, what words?” Additionally, he’s saying, “Let me describe what it feels like.” He’s doing all of this in the verse and then he goes into the refrain, “If you love me life will be beautiful.” It’s just so simple. That’s what I think I’m realizing as a vocalist, improviser, and composer, that we’ve got to make this thing look easy at the end of the day. It’s really a complex combination of things, which I find in Jobim’s writing and his way of singing.
Timeless Portraits and Dreams (Telarc, 2006)
It’s one of the tunes she wrote and we recorded together. When I sat down and broke that tune down, I found a whole visionary side. It was the ability to look outside yourself and have a universal perspective that’s inclusive. “Unconditional Love” doesn’t have any lyrics, but it doesn’t matter. In this case, the way she would take chord progressions was incredible. She had the ability to play very, very slowly, really, really fast, or in the middle. Geri had a unique understanding of harmony as well, and I think she took more risks harmonically, certainly more than Stevie Wonder or Jobim did. It gave me this, “What if?” thought about harmony and exploration. I found her music challenging to sing honestly and thoroughly convey a certain truth.
Brazilian Romance (Columbia, 1987)
It’s from her last recording, which tells you everything. After 100 recordings and traveling the world 10 times, here I am listening to what we wouldn’t know was her last album. There’s something to it that has to do with how the vocalist is in control of their instrument from the start to the end. The story is told, you’re controlling the instrument in a way that allows you to tell the story, and that’s what I get from Sarah Vaughan.
A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965)
“Acknowledgement” and “Resolution” on that album, that’s it for me—forever. Sometimes when I think of Coltrane, I think of his solos, such as the ones on those compositions, and not so much his records. His solos knock me out and burn a hole in my brain. It’s not so much the artists and their ideas, but rather it’s their sound that kills me, and how it’s conveying the truth.
[as told to Chris J. Walker]