Sarah Vaughan: Maria




Sarah Vaughan (vocals)


Sassy Swings The Tivoli (Verve)

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Sarah Vaughan (vocals),

Kirk Stewart (piano), Charles Williams (bass), George Hughes (drums)


Composed by Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim


Recorded: live at the Tivoli, Copenhagen, Denmark, July 18-21, 1963


Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

"The most beautiful sound I ever heard...." So begins in wonder the central song of West Side Story, Tony's expression of the lightning-strike of love. As many times as that tune has been played or sung over the years since 1957, surely one of the loveliest and most startling performances occurred on Sarah Vaughan's live recording in 1963. Once you get past the minor word changes needed to allow Sassy to sing on Romeo Tony's behalf, her sound begins to sink in. This is Sarah the matured singer, Sarah in diva mode: the arrangement only mildly jazzish, the piano/bass accompaniment mostly quiet, swing forgone for the space of this song, the powerful vocalist unleashed.

"And suddenly I found / How wonderful a sound / Can be...." There was no need for other instruments, really, when Sarah's had become so nuanced and expressive, her voice ranging from contralto to higher-than-high as the song progresses. The words flow and her voice rises and falls; there are moments of sprechgesang and sudden leaps of range and joy.

"Say it loud and there's music playing / Say it soft and it's almost like praying...." Tony's song is a lover's secular prayer after all, and we are reminded that his Juliet's magical name is actually thoroughly commonplace thanks to a Mary of long ago. (We may also recall another miraculous Vaughan recording, from a decade earlier, recasting the "Ave Maria"). As Sarah builds this performance from musing on a single word, to the gradual rising near song's end, and then reaches for the last high phrase (top notes whether sung by tenor or soprano), she unexpectedly takes her voice even higher, adding a few brief melismatic notes beyond the range of all but a few jazz or pop singers, or divas a show-stopping finish indeed.

"All the sounds of the world in a single word?" Sarah.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher

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