Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington are entries in Allegro's Cocktail Hour series of double-shot tributes to mid-twentieth-century musical giants. Attractively, if sparsely, packaged musical icebreakers for the novice listener, the two-CD sets are an intoxicating (and, just under $18, affordable) introduction to some of the sweetest sounds ever put on record.
Listen to Vaughan's smoky barroom vocals on standards such as "Time After Time," "Don't Worry About Me," and "Misty," and you'll understand why the singer earned the sobriquet the Divine Sarah. This music aches, moans, breathes, and sighs.
Vaughan's phrasing and sense of timing are easily the equal of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the two contemporaries with whom she most often is compared. And she might have brought more pure attitude to her material than those two great women of song put together. "Goodbye to spring/And all it meant to me./It can never be/The thing that used to be," she wails on "I'm Through with You," her delivery at once wistful and haughty.
Vaughan could wring every flicker of emotion out of a torch song, as well as ride the beat on R&B tunes such as "Broken Hearted Melody," one of her best-known recordings. Indeed long before the end of the second disc, which concludes with an upbeat rendering of "What a Difference a Day Makes" followed by a low-down version of "Lover Man," you'll be convinced there wasn't anything the lady couldn't sing and, perhaps, that divine was insufficient as an adjective to describe her.
Likewise after listening to Duke Ellington, you might be surprised to discover that Senator Teddy from Massachusetts is not the most influential Edward Kennedy ever to reside in Washington, D.C. That distinction would go to Edward Kennedy Ellington -- Duke to his friends and jazz aficionados the world over. Ellington, a D.C. native, wasn't instrumental in the evolution of jazz music. As much as any musician, he was jazz music. The composer and band leader was responsible for classics like "Drop Me Off in Harlem," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," and "Sophisticated Lady." Plus hundreds more. While no two-CD set could ever do justice to the Duke's creative output, the Cocktail Hour collection, featuring a total of 28 tracks, at least suggests the broad outlines of the distinct, refined American sound Ellington pioneered.
And that's the point of these discs. Containing no liner notes and few surprise selections, neither Sarah Vaughan nor Duke Ellington will ever satisfy the hard-core fan's thirst for this music. Both, though, should more than wet the whistle of the uninitiated. Cheers.