At a concert paying tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Nov. 19 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Dianne Reeves mentioned that every time she heard Vaughan sing “Misty” live, the jazz icon nicknamed The Divine One brought something different to it. Reeves used to hope, she said, “to someday be in that position, to say what I want to say, when I want to say it.”
Reeves — who, as the event’s host and organizer Christian McBride mentioned, often has been called Vaughan’s heir apparent — reached that point long ago, and sang her own intense version of “Misty” at this event, which took place in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater as part of the fifth annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival.
Sheila Jordan and Lisa Fischer also sang at this remarkable show, with backing from bassist McBride’s trio. The trio, featuring pianist Christian Sands and drummer Jerome Jennings, performed some numbers on their own, too.
Vaughan was born and raised in Newark, and learned her crafted in the city’s nightclubs, theaters and churches. Appropriately, the city has honored her in many ways. The street in front of NJPAC is Sarah Vaughan Way, and the main concert space at Newark Symphony Hall is called the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall. Every year, the Moody Festival presents a Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition.
As tribute concerts go, this was a low-key, intimate one.
Jordan — still a commanding singer at the age of 88 — sang “Autumn in New York” as well as some funny songs with improvised lyrics, including one about Charlie Parker ” ’cause he loved Sarah Vaughan,” she said.
“It’s crazy, the stuff (Vaughan) could do,” said Fischer during a set that included “The Very Thought of You,” “Black Coffee” and “A House Is Not a Home,” and proved she was capable of the kind of multi-octave swoops that made Vaughan so unique.
Reeves talked about the 1954 Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown album (which “just killed me,” she said), about hearing Vaughan sing at Los Angeles nightclubs, and about attempting to sing a Bach aria in Vaughan’s style while in high school. Her set ended with a dazzling take on “Lullaby of Birdland,” a song that was included on that album with Brown, and that Reeves sang herself on her Grammy-winning 2001 album, The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan. (Peter Martin, Reeves’ regular pianist and music director, took Sands’ place during Reeves’ set.)
The evening ended with Jordan’s “Workshop Blues,” a kind of joyful improvised musical conversation featuring all three women, who seemed to share a deep camaraderie. I found myself thinking back to a quote from Vaughan that was projected on a video screen at the start of the show, before the music started: “When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don’t even notice.”