Dinah Washington

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The Fats Waller Songbook

Dinah Washington, ‘The Queen’, had the best voice of all the jazz vocalists: rich and unbelievably powerful, vibrant, exuberant, full of character, it sounds at turns like champagne, scotch whiskey and Christmas pudding! In addition to that unassailable instrument, she also had perfect time, pitch, and the same jazz instinct for intensity and emotional expression to be found in the best horn players. She did record quite a lot of poppish material, however, so you have to pick and choose carefully; this 1957 album, with a superior big-band arranged by Ernie Wilkins, is probably her best all-round effort. Again and again, you hear her voice reach such a level of intensity that the timbre momentarily breaks into a growl and almost seems to explode: truly incredible jazz singing!
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Sings Bessie Smith

This album is flawed, but only because of the accompanying arrangements, and since Dinah not only doesn’t seem to notice, but on the contrary seems to be in her absolute element, it really doesn’t matter too much. The backing band, led by her then-new husband tenorist Eddie Chamblee, includes superior musicians such as Clark Terry, Quentin Jackson and Julian Priester, but unfortunately the decision was made, presumably by Chamblee or the other arranger, bassist Robare Edmonson, to try to imitate the 1920s sound associated with Bessie Smith; they do a terrible job of this, with the drumming of James Slaughter sounding like a parody of traditional jazz rather than the real thing. However the occasion of the ‘Queen of the Blues’ having an opportunity to interpret the songs of the ‘Empress of the Blues’ seemed to override all of this, and Dinah pulls off some of her most overwhelming performances; her main influence was Billie, and Billie’s main influence was Bessie, but it is between the huge, powerful voices of Bessie and Dinah that the most obvious affinity exists. The clear highlight of this album is the masterpiece ‘Backwater Blues’, on which Slaughter plays a much more appropriate back-beat swing, and the rest of the band generally sound a lot better. While Smith’s 1927 version with James P. Johnson had been subdued and mournful as she recounted her story of being left homeless by floods, Dinah, on the other hand, quite simply wails with abandon about her plight: on the line ‘can’t you hear the thunder, can’t you hear the lightning, can’t you hear the wind beginning to blow’, the intensity level crosses the line to reach an unbelievable peak.