5 Essential Female Jazz Vocal CDs
by Joe Grimley
(Joe is a record collector of some renown and a jazz afficianado. When he’s not getting turned on to great new and classic jazz records, he’s turning others on via his weekly jazz vinyl DJ set at Bowlero in Royal Oak. We’re happy to have him sit in.)
Collectors and aficionados often overlook jazz vocal recordings in their quests to enhance their collections. In my observation, while the great jazz singers are admired, their seminal recordings are not valued as highly as recordings by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and other great instrumentalists. I’ve never understood the disproportionate fascination with instrumental over vocal jazz, particularly when vocalists were often backed by iconic players, either in small combos or in orchestras. In fact, two of the singers on this list also happen to be superb pianists.
When I began to seriously explore jazz, I was particularly drawn to great performances by female vocalists. Legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington spent as much time on my CD player as did Miles, Trane, and Monk. Recordings by these singers seem more accessible – the material chosen is often older and more recognizable, and the tunes tend to be shorter. I like a nice three or four-minute jazzy show tune to balance out the 10 or 12-minute jams with multiple solos. In my ears, there is equal time for both and a playlist featuring equal time for vocalists is musical nirvana for me.
Prolific female jazz singers seem to outnumber men, with a vast back catalog of recordings to explore. The recordings I’ve listed here I prefer to listen to on CD. My taste in jazz – whether as a radio host, as a live vinyl DJ or as a fan — is a balance of accessibility and authenticity. When people new to jazz hear a recording, will they find it compelling and listenable? When seasoned jazz-heads hear it, will they think, “ooh, this is real jazz”? I want the answer for both audiences to be “yes.” I think these five CDs fit that bill.
Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rodgers and Hart Song Book (Verve, 1956)
Norman Granz created Verve Records in 1956 to showcase Ella Fitzgerald’s prodigious talent. He also hoped to capitalize on her immense popularity – she had sold over 20 million records for Decca. Arranged and conducted by Buddy Bregman, Ella breathes new life into gorgeous songs written as far back as the mid-1920’s. The string of undeniable classics includes “My Funny Valentine,” “Bewitched,” “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Blue Moon.”
This recording is the second of the eight “Song Books” the First Lady of Song made with Granz. The series focuses on Ella’s interpretation of a composer or composing team. While perhaps not the most ambitious of the series, the 35 songs here comprise almost two hours of jazz-vocal heaven. Also look for the 40th anniversary double CD reissue which includes one extra take. For the record, the other Song Books include tributes to Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter.
This package sounds terrific and includes updated liner notes to supplement the originals. The cover photo of Ella is a beauty by Herman Leonard, with liner notes by, among others, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (lyricist Lorenz Hart had sadly passed by the time these recordings were made).
Sarah Vaughan (EmArcy/Verve reissue, 1954)
Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan’s voice has been described as one of the greatest of the 20th century. In terms of pure vocal chops, she was unparalleled in both the jazz and pop galaxies. There has been speculation that she could have dominated the opera world had she chosen to partake in it. Also an accomplished pianist, she was briefly second piano in Earl Hines’s orchestra, but it was her singing that made her famous.
Perhaps Vaughan’s most highly acclaimed project, these sessions included a small backing group featuring jazz legends Herbie Mann (flute), Roy Haynes (drums) and Clifford Brown, the ill-fated trumpet prodigy. Vaughan gives arguably the definitive performance of some jazz staples, including “Lullaby of Birdland,” “April In Paris,” “Embraceable You” and “September Song,” changing her mood effortlessly from effusive to pensive.
This eponymous release also features an original cover photo by Herman Leonard. The original liner notes are accompanied by new ones that offer further historical perspective on the recording.
Solitude: Songs by Billie Holiday (Clef/Verve reissue, 1952)
Clef label head Norman Granz took Billie Holiday under his wing for most of the latter period of her career. Granz surrounded her with top-notch musicians in small-group settings and, despite Holiday’s declining health and vocal abilities, her Verve catalogue is uniformly terrific.
At a different point on the pure talent spectrum, Billie Holiday is nonetheless considered by many to be the ultimate jazz singer, inhabiting a song with unmatched authenticity. This recording features jazz legends Oscar Peterson (piano), Ray Brown (bass) and Barney Kessel (guitar). Highlights from a stellar track list include the title track written by Duke Ellington, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “These Foolish Things” and “Tenderly.”
The detailed, updated CD liner notes explain how the original 10” LP, which received a five-star review in 1953 from Downbeat magazine, became 16 tracks for this 1993 reissue.
Julie Is Her Name, Julie London (Liberty, 1955)
One of the queens of the “cool school” of jazz vocalists, Julie London’s debut recording is a classic of sultry, understated breathiness and cocktail-lounge perfection. Accompanied by only electric guitar and bass, London conveys quiet intimacy versed in romance and melancholy. The absence of drums, piano or horns leaves plenty of space for her mesmerizing voice. Her influence on subsequent generations of vocalists is apparent, most notably in the work of Dianna Krall.
Julie Is Her Name boasts the first recorded version of “Cry Me a River,” which made it to #9 on the U.S. pop charts in 1956; the Library of Congress inducted London’s recording of the song into the National Recording Registry in 2016. Other album highlights include “Laura,” “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “I Should Care.”
Liberty’s 1992 CD reissue includes Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 2 from 1958, which employs the same winning format — only guitar and bass behind her voice. Although she would later record with rhythm sections and full orchestras, many regard the instrumentation on London’s debut album as her best context.
Give Him The Ooh-La-La, Blossom Dearie (Verve, 1957)
To answer your first question, “Blossom” and “Dearie” are her real middle and last names. But her name is hardly the most interesting aspect of this artist. Dearie was an accomplished pianist, joined on this recording by an all-star combo consisting of Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass) and Jo Jones (drums).
This, her second Verve album, is highlighted by her signature version of the Cole Porter title track (with additional alternate takes on the CD). There are also great renditions of “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea,” “Just One Of Those Things” and “Like Someone In Love.” It also includes a number of lesser- known gems, like Bart Howard’s “Let Me Love You,” the likes of which Dearie proudly continued to record throughout her career.
Her unique, child-like wisp of a voice (befitting her name) was first heard in Paris by Norman Granz. She lived in France for five years until Granz persuaded her to return to New York to record for Verve. Her success on several Verve LPs translated into appearances on early versions of the Today and Tonight shows, as well as numerous supper-club engagements in New York and London throughout the 1960’s.