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Mixed bag from great female vocalists

Four by four
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday,
Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington
Polygram India
Rs. 100

Four singers. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, the greatest female singers of jazz's swing era. Dinah Washington, a decade or two behind them and somewhat closer in fame. Four songs by each for Verve, now 55, a great specialist jazz recording company. Alas! Verve didn't manage to get all of them to wear their best jazz clothes.

We start promisingly with four of Fitzgerald's greatest performances, featuring her with a backing quartet of piano, guitar, bass and drums. She takes the lion's share of improvising with phenomenal skill and variety: scat (nonsense syllables), variations of melody and phrasing, and improvised lyrics strewn with references to fellow musicians such as Louis Armstrong. On Mack the knife she goes further and does an occasional take-off on Armstrong's voice. All through we hear the tremendous rapport with the audience that made her live performances so memorable.

Holiday too is in good form. Her trademark sadness in Strange fruit and Good morning heartache, the former basically a rhythmless duo with trumpet, is offset by the sardonic emotion of God bless the child and the fast-paced light-heartedness of What a little moonlight can do, where her singing over a trumpet improvisation (possibly by Harry Edison or Buck Clayton) balances with extended piano solos.

Vaughan was often a true vocal improviser, mostly using scat. But she also often gave plain pop performances in which neither she nor her orchestra came up with any significant improvisation. Here, Lullaby of Birdland is the only genuine jazz number. Anything less than brilliant scat work and equally brilliant instrumental solos would have been an insult to this famous be-bop anthem; ``Sassy'' and the band come up with just that. The other three are great pop renditions, Billy Strayhorn's haunting composition Lush life particularly evocative.

Finally, Dinah Washington's four pieces are marked by her unusually mordant voice set in the kind of mushy string section backgrounds that are characteristic of straight Hollywood or Broadway musicals.


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