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Music Reviews : Vaughan's Rhapsody In Gershwin

July 14, 1986|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Great artists have a way of owning great composers.

Sarah Vaughan is a great artist. George Gershwin is a great composer. Add the inspired Marty Paich's orchestral arrangements to the marriage and you have a thrilling songfest in the bargain--thanks to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which played and packaged a program that also featured the debut of pianist Christopher O'Riley.

Hollywood Bowl, site of the weekend event, was understandably packed (15,343 Friday and 17,859 Saturday). But surely among the hordes were many eager returnees who remembered the brilliant Vaughan/Michael Tilson Thomas collaboration and its reprise several years ago, not to mention the Grammy-awarded recording.

Tilson Thomas, who was singularly able to embrace a wide-ranging Gershwin celebration and provide special subtleties for Vaughan, was missed this time around. But the divine Sarah did not really need him.

Her art is revelatory. She defies categorization. You could call her a jazz singer, but the style and sensibility of that genre are just a context. You could call her a bel canto specialist, because of a stunning technique for embellishing the melodic line to expressive purpose and controlling breath.

But nothing that Vaughan does constitutes trickery or featism or an end in itself. When she gets crowds to screaming, it's because of the gut response to her interpretive wallop--one that delivers astonishing wit, imagination and musicality.

She phrases for poetic realism and takes textual liberties to heighten that realism. "A Foggy Day," for instance, had her repeating the descriptive title word over and over, making it sound like it feels. And she guides her multi-octave-ranging voice over a dynamic spectrum that qualifies as operatic, punching out incredibly full, round bass tones from her gallon-jug contralto.

If there is such a thing as operatic jazz, Vaughan embodies it (and Paich, conducting the Philharmonic, showcases it). "The Man I Love" and the whole program, in fact, found her belting out more robust tones than remembered, but to just as striking, improvisational effect. Here, she took an upbeat-jazz, cabaletta-like second chorus with her fine trio.

Neal Stulberg tended ably to the straight orchestral duties, opening the program with Don Rose's loving arrangement of the overture to "Strike Up the Band," following later with a tame reading of "An American in Paris," and finally accompanying O'Riley's fluent, easy, idiomatic pianism in "Rhapsody in Blue."

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