The best of Sarah Vaughan: Five essential albums by ‘The Divine One’

The legendary Sarah Vaughan left an indelible mark on the world of jazz. A four-time Grammy Award winner and an NEA Jazz Masters recipient, Vaughan was a defining voice of the genre with a career that spanned more than five decades.

Nicknamed “Sassy” and “The Divine One,” Vaughan was said to have a voice that happens once in a lifetime. She had a broad vocal range and could sing from baritone through soprano with precision. Vaughan was also a skilled pianist and every once in a while can be heard accompanying herself in her work. She understood music on a deep level and performed with unparalleled heart and honesty. Her interpretations often feel like the way the songs were always meant to be sung.

Virtuosic, operatic and luscious are all words frequently used to describe her. Over the course of her long career, she released more than 50 albums and recorded with some of the best in the business including Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Billie Erskine and more. Her influence is widespread, with artists including Anita Baker, Sade and Dianne Reeves citing her as an inspiration.

While you can’t go wrong with any of her work, here are five standout albums from the rich catalogue of Sarah Vaughan.

Sarah Vaughan (1955)

Sarah Vaughan met Clifford Brown in the early ’50s. This was their only collaboration together, but the pair really left a mark on each other. Vaughan referred to this record as her favourite album from her discography. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and is one of the first times Vaughan was recorded scat singing — a skill for which she would become known throughout her career.

Swingin’ Easy (1957)

This is one of Sarah Vaughan’s most well-known albums. A skilled pianist herself, she sounds very much at home performing with a piano trio. Swingin’ Easy features two different trios: The first has John Malachi on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, while the second includes Jimmy Jones on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Haynes once again on the drums. The songs here highlight Vaughan’s incredible range and skill both emotionally and technically.

No Count Sarah (1959)

This album is widely considered to be one of her best. The title No Count Sarah refers to the fact that Vaughan was accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra, but without Count Basie himself. On this recording, we get a showcase of her incredible prowess with vocalese, especially on the songs Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and No Count Blues.

After Hours (1961)

This is an album for people who love a good ballad. Not to be confused with her 1955 album After Hours with Sarah Vaughan, this 1961 album features an accompaniment first for the singer: just a guitar and double bass. The result is an intimate affair spotlighting Vaughan’s rich vocals.

Live in Japan (1973)

Recorded at the Nakano Sun Plaza Hall during Vaughan’s brief stint with Mainstream Records, Live in Japan is a fan favourite. Some say this album is Sarah Vaughan at the height of her capabilities. Her confidence shines throughout the performance. The two-disc album features favourites like Misty, The Nearness of You, Like Someone in Love and Summertime.

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