Though both Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan were established stars by the 1940s wasn’t until a decade later that they truly came into their own as vocalists, establishing the respective sounds and styles that would define their iconic status. Under the strict supervision of Norman Granz, who built the Verve label around her, Fitzgerald remained strictly jazz-focused. For Vaughan at Mercury, primarily under the direction of producer Bob Shad, the agenda was broader. As documented in 1986 with the release of three hefty box sets that included all 273 tracks she recorded between 1954 and 1959, Mercury hedged its bets by marketing her as both a pop and jazz artist. So chart hits like “Make Yourself Comfortable” and the mega-selling “Broken-Hearted Melody” sit aside such dazzling jazz tracks as her seminal “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and scat-lined “How High the Moon” (which preceded Fitzgerald’s landmark Berlin version by five years).
The intent of this slimmer, chicer four-disc set is to isolate the 72 tracks that represent Vaughan’s work with either small jazz combos or jazz orchestras. First up is the 1953 EP Images which, when 12-inch LPs became the norm shortly thereafter, was expanded to the 12-track Swingin’ Easy (a 13th track, “Linger Awhile,” was added to CD reissues). Her “Can’t Take That Away” is the stellar centerpiece, but fine renditions of “Body and Soul,” “All of Me” and particularly “Pennies From Heaven” are near-equally stunning.
Next, Vaughan makes her full-length stereo debut with 1956’s In the Land of Hi-Fi, one of the great studio achievements of her career (with Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding all adding to its luster). Highlights include that sizzling “How High the Moon,” a killer “Cherokee” and a slippery, sexy “An Occasional Man.” The album’s one flaw is an overly stylized “Over the Rainbow” that offers a hint of the mannered approach that would sometimes mar Vaughan’s later work.
The simply titled Sarah Vaughan, from 1954, finds her in the exemplary company of trumpeter Clifford Brown for nine tracks, while the aptly titled No Count Sarah, from 1959, recalls her big-band days with Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine as she fronts the Count Basie Orchestra, but without Basie, for an additional nine produced by Jack Tracy.
The balance of the set comprises two club dates separated by less than seven months. 1958’s Sarah Vaughan and Her Trio at Mr. Kelly’s originally included just nine songs captured at the fabled Chicago nightspot. With the release of those 1986 boxes, another dozen tracks were added, all of which are included here. Also released in ’59, After Hours at the London House returns Vaughan to Chicago for a brief but lovely set, her trio expanded to a quartet to include trumpeter Thad Jones. Both are fine testament to the warmth and playfulness that, back in the day, garnered her the soubriquet Sassy.