In his introduction to The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, noted authority Will Friedwald positions it as the conclusion of a quasi-trilogy. That triptych of sorts began a decade and a half ago with Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, assaying such timeless Tin Pan Alley gems as “Summertime” and “Stormy Weather,” and continued with 2010’s A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. So, in logical sequence: songs, singers, albums.
Around the time A Biographical Guide was published, Friedwald observed in a interview that even at 800-plus pages, with individual entries for more than 200 singers, the hefty tome wasn’t definitive, leaving out such worthy artists as Catherine Russell, Jane Harvey and Rebecca Kilgore.
Here, the results of Friedwald’s curation are far leaner. He covers a total of just 56 albums, spanning 47 singers, a drop in the bucket even when limiting the discussion to arguably “great” LPs. Nonplussing omissions include recordings by Nancy Wilson, Barbra Streisand, Mark Murphy, Chris Connor, Julie London, Keely Smith and Jackie Paris. With few exceptions, “LP” is a valid classification. Eighty percent of the selections date from the 1950s and ’60s, with a smattering from the ’70s and only two from this millennium. In his opening remarks, Friedwald posits that, in the age of iTunes and Spotify, “the album format is becoming a thing of the past”—surely surprising news for, among many others, Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves, John Pizzarelli, Jamie Cullum, Karrin Allyson and Gregory Porter, none of whom make the cut. (Vocal groups are also bypassed: Every unit from the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo’s to the Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices is overlooked.)
But rather than focus on what’s missing, better to relish what’s here. As always, Friedwald is a master of detail. Each essay provides perceptive cultural and historical perspective, thoughtful appreciation of the album’s significance within the performer’s career and rich track-by-track dissection, usually incorporating valuable information on the songs and songwriters.
Is there anything new to say about such landmarks as Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, Judy Garland’s Judy at Carnegie Hall and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman? Yes, in fact, and Friedwald’s analyses are filled with perspicacious insights. There are superbly crafted essays on Peggy Lee, one of the few singers allowed more than one entry, Lena Horne, Lee Wiley and Maxine Sullivan, plus a discerning examination of the scat-fuelled Ella Fitzgerald compilation Lullabies of Birdland, released in 1955, immediately prior to her Verve renaissance. Equally enlightening are assessments of works by lesser figures like Matt Dennis, Marilyn Maye and Bobby Troup. Friedwald heaps welcome praise on the perennially underappreciated Doris Day, likewise bolstering lost-to-time heavyweights Dick Haymes and Kay Starr. He also adds such unexpected, yet effectively justified, discs as Jo Stafford Sings: Songs of Scotland, Eydie and Steve Sing the Golden Hits and even God Bless Tiny Tim. Subjective? Indeed, but intelligently, entertainingly so.