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Brazilian Romance is Sarah Vaughan’s last studio album in which she performs solo, excepting guest artist Milton Nescimento’s Portugese inserts on “Love and Passion.” Quite a few press reviews maligned it when released in 1987, carping the “Divine One” was over the hill, assigning additional blame for their dissatisfaction to the fractious recording sessions with volatile Sarah battling producer Sergio Mendes over concept and her jazzy ostinato proclivities. We the public, like the critics, could believe she’s both pleading and venting in some lyrics of the slightly minacious “Obsession”—“all those silver clouds in my eyes make me believe you are a blessing when you are a curse in disguise.” Sergio may well be the rare musician, perhaps like Tony Bennett, in seemingly perpetual joy but he too had tantrums, having fired his entire Brasil ’66 ensemble, including Lani Hall, over complaints their accommodations on the road were sleazy. (Dating and eventually marrying Herb Alpert, Lani was wisely reinstated, along with better lodging.) Attending a Sergio concert at the famed Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in the early 70s, I remember the curtain opening and as he and the group began “Ye Me Le,” one of the bongos perched on an elevated platform fell over from vibration, stopping the show; with the curtain closing, the audience heard furious shouting, detecting Sergio’s accent, and tension was felt when the concert resumed. As arranger of Brazilian Romance (and a huge contributor to Lani’s 1998 Brasil Nativo), legendary Dori Caymmi alludes to larger issues: “There was a basic mistake with the production. I don’t want to mention names, but the producers were all thinking pop while I was thinking jazz. Recording in the pop vein was shortsighted, a real disservice. The approach for a first class vocalist like Sarah Vaughan is nothing less than…Sarah Vaughan. Anyway, there was this misconception, which made her very difficult to work with, and to further complicate things, she was making this album for CBS without permission from Quincy Jones, who held her contract at Qwest.” The plural “producers” affirms CBS-Columbia’s financial overseers were involved in the contretemps related to the album’s vocal and orchestral direction and, judging by the effusive instrumentation, consented to its leaning more toward expensive Rio-esque romanticism than hardcore Brazilian rootage. Columbia’s scant recording history with Sarah also seeped in to infect: the company released her first solo album back in 1950, let her go after she complained about the commercial material she was expected to record, then issued two compilations in 1955 of her previously unreleased recordings it still held rights to and from which she collected pittance, and then in 1982 released the extravagantly unnecessary Gershwin Live! performance. Sarah had troubles beyond vanity such as a litigious demeanor and privately-held health concerns—her declining “first class” vocal powers were accelerating from excessive smoking and drinking, punctuated by cocaine and marijuana use. Reportedly being frequently late for the recording sessions of Brazilian Romance and often leaving early in a huff, tempers flared as costs of studios, musicians and transportation to L. A., Detroit and Rio were rising. The arguments between Sarah and Sergio over approaches to the material started in rehearsals and proceeded to get heated during taping, with Sergio, in headphones, stopping the recording process any time he’d hear displacing languorous slushiness and/or scat she would sneak in as method to get her way. She wanted interpretive freedom, he wanted restraint. The eruptions and resentments from the warring sides would suggest underlining incompatibilty, but after her successful pop albums I Love Brazil and Copacabana, which present her renderings on Sergio’s “Like a Lover,” “Empty Faces” and “Pra Dizer Adeus,” she wanted to do a third, and specifically include his “So Many Stars,” wishing to create another signature with the impact of her version of “Send in the Clowns.” Music written by Sergio and lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and considered a timeless classic recorded by Lani at the age of 20 for Brasil ’66’s Look Around, the packaging of desire, emotional surge in and Dave Grusin’s arrangements of “So Many Stars” epitomized 60s ultra-sophisticated ballad, oftentimes heard as a “last call” at many urban watering holes. With Columbia’s money, all the imported talent in support and Sergio supervising, Sarah was convinced the gig would be a breeze. What she wasn’t fully apprised of is Sergio as taskmaster: consistently referred to as a drill sergeant, he doesn’t suffer divas at the expense of solid performance. He is, though, appreciated for compensating voices not in their prime; he knew Sarah’s wasn’t in 1987 and still took the assignment. Tailoring the 10 tracks to her strengths, permitting limited wallow but no wailing, he accorded her version of “So Many Stars” and, like Streisand’s later rendition with equally lenghty introductory foreplay, she’s husky with conviction turning into melancholic evocation—one of the reasons the number attracts long-established singers. Either willingly or through obedience she’s in control with soulfulness, much more appealing than most of her live performances of the song on Youtube. (Having been nominated for a Grammy for the album, she was invited to sing the song at the show—also available on YouTube— delivering a version substantially closer to what she wanted to record.) Yet “So Many Stars” isn’t remembrance of fucks past, it’s about the search for the next one; if verbs aren’t switched to past tense, age limits apply. Melancholy over “what we might have been” is, however, the fitting subject of “Photograph,” which sequentially follows and written by Caymmi, Tracy Mann and Paulo César Pinheiro; she’s poignant and hurting, and the opening gush of George Duke’s light fingers might be origin for Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s spurting in Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice. In fact, all the tracks open as inviting avenues leading to some thrilling articulation and modulation delivered in her earned imperfection. Instead of absolution, the critics wrote as if in sudden discovery and shock that Sarah’s “voice was shot”—sexism from predominantly males who ignored the diminution of Sinatra and Bennett and excused them as consummate artists of style while gleefully picking at her scabs, ninnyhammering “her octave scale and vibrato have, after forty years, unfortunately atrophied.” They complained her celebrated scat was absent was well. On this latter issue, the selections don’t include Sergio’s under-appreciated specialty of melodic Brazilian nonsense syllables, which is a regret. But at 63 when recording, the “free-falls” from her “divinity” have throaty realness—a vocal suppuration—discharged in Dori’s complex (virtually curlicue) arrangements of story-telling, while Sergio’s discipline brings to the fore her almost masculine command of multiple lyrics, as in “Love and Passion,” and dabs her oozing fluctuations, flourishes and foibles. Listening to the word profusions, we know why she didn’t sing most of the album numbers in concerts—she’d have to read the sheets. Having died from lung cancer only three years after Brazilian Romance, Sarah probably didn’t resolve whatever embranglements resulting from clashes: in one of her live performances of “So Many Stars” she quizzes the crowd if it’s aware of the album’s release—the people sat in silence, confirming Columbia wasn’t spending much on a national push—and she namelessly if lamely mocks Sergio about the spelling of Brazil as a reminder she remained acerbated. There’s no kiss-and-tell from her nemesis. Stress can and often does achieve surprising accomplishment, even if it takes more than thirty years to be acknowledged. Wrapping her dissipated yo-yo voice in deluxe tropical trappings courtesy Dori’s guitar, Duke’s pianissimo, Hubert Laws’s flute, Carlos Vega’s drums, Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion, Marcio Montarrovos’s flugelhorn and trumpet, Chuck Domanico’s and Alphonso Johnson’s bass, Tom Scott’s and Ernie Watts’s potent sax, and all under Sergio’s engineered blending, Brazilian Romance is receiving its due in reappraisal as Sarah’s bittersweet kiss-off. Aqui está para você, Cadela! 


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Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 2020 (Revised 3/2022) All Rights Reserved.