Sarah+2906

"I ALWAYS remembered an album Ella Fitzgerald did with only the backing of pianist Ellis Larkins,” said Teddy Reig, the Roulette Records producer, in his 1990 memoir, Reminiscing in Tempo: The Life and Times of a Jazz Hustler. In 1961 he approached his label’s resident goddess, Sarah Vaughan, with a suggestion. Vaughan was known for her flamboyant vocal fantasias, enacted by pipes that could swoop from dusky lows to soprano highs. With all her technique, she could be like a child set loose in a toy store, trying to grab everything at once. Perhaps out of artistic purism, or perhaps because her orchestral albums were losing money, Reig made a request: “On this next album I want you to sing naked.”

“Are you losing your mind?”

“I just want you without all that jive noise,’ he explained. “Just you and a simple background – whatever you feel comfortable with.”

Thus came
After Hours, a piano-bass session and a rare exercise in minimalism for the Divine One. Sarah + 2 is its sequel. Vaughan recorded it in August 1962 in L.A., joined by guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Joe Comfort. Kessel had toured the world with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic; flashily virtuosic as he was, he also proved a thoughtful accompanist for singers, and Vaughan had a ball with his witty playing. She brings out the funkiness in Baby Won’t You Please Come Home, Bessie Smith’s 1923 hit; and whispers Goodnight Sweetheart, the closing theme of the old Ray Noble dance band, as a cuddly tease. Her singing reaches a peak of beauty in Key Largo, the title song of a 1948 Humphrey Bogart thriller. In the ‘90s, that track showed up on a Honda Acura car commercial. Like the rest of Sarah + 2, it proved that Sassy could shed her crystal plumage and do what Reig wanted her to do: sing naked.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

[James Gavin, the author of
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]