Columbia Recordings (1933-44)
1933-1944 [Brunswick, Vocalion and Okeh]
Plagued by loneliness and heroin addiction 'Lady Day' never really had much of a chance in her all-too-brief life. Her musical romance with legendary tenor Lester Young is probably the closest she ever came to being happy. Many cite her recordings for Columbia subsidiaries from 1933-1944 as her finest work, available on the 'Essential' collection.
The Commodore Master Takes
1933 & 1944 [Commodore]
Billie Holiday free-lancing with Commodore produced these riveting 16 tracks that demonstrate this is where she tried to excorcise some of her demons. While Doc Cheatham guests on trumpet, few of the other musicians are well-known to modern jazz listeners. 'Strange Fruit' stands out as a frightening story of black lynchings in the U.S. South.
Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown
Brown's name was added to the CD release of this set in order to take advantage of the trumpeter's legendary status. Sassy's voice is in resplendent form as she makes her way through nine topnotch standards. 'Lullaby of Birdland' is the standout, but the follow-up 'April in Paris' is also riveting. One of the best pure jazz vocal sets around.
Washington is typical of the school of fine all-round vocalists who had to constantly tolerate accusations of selling out her "art" because she often chose to work outside the jazz field. No questions here though - the presence of trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach for this studio jam session make this far-and-away her finest jazz set.
Take a talented young jazz singer, put her in front of a small group arranged by Quincy Jones, then team her with trumpeter Clifford Brown... well, you really can't miss. Jones gets the most out of both, making sure to give the performers space to strut their stuff. Merrill sounds a little nervous at times, which is only natural in the situation.
Sings the Cole Porter Songbook
This smash-hit was the first in Ella's songbook series recorded for Norman Granz's Verve label. All entries in the series are uniformly superb, with Fitzgerald at the peak of her vocal powers displaying an innate understanding of the material. Somewhat thankfully for jazz, the album single-handedly saved the Verve label from insolvency.
The Best of Chet Baker Sings
1953-1956 [Pacific Jazz]
Baker really had two very disparate careers - one as the coolest trumpet on the West Coast and the other as a popular jazz vocalist. Here he is at his most delicately romantic as his voice quavers its way through 20 tracks cut for Pacific Jazz between 1953 and 1956. The album 'It Could Happen to You' (1958) is also highly recommended.
Ella & Louis
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
In later years Armstrong's distinctive gravel-tones brought him acclaim as a great jazz vocalist. Here he plays the perfect foil to Fitzgerald and the affection between the two is obvious. Satchmo even manages to blow his horn every now and then. The superb 'Best of…' collection features tracks from all three Verve albums, plus a bonus live track.
Little Girl Blue
Nina Simone was such a good jazz vocalist that many forget that she was also an exceptionally talented pianist. Unfortunately, she sold the rights to this record for only $3,000, leaving the record company to make a veritable mint. The album's title says it all - the mood is blue, even when drifting into charmingly up-tempo territory. Outstanding.
Swings Shubert Alley
Mel Torme is often written off as a lightweight 50s teen idol, but this set proves he can swing with the best of them. Fronting a terrific orchestra, Torme churns out a typical mix of uptempo classics with a few slower ballads thrown in for good measure. The standout tracks include 'On the Street Where You Live' and 'Too Close for Comfort'.
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