“I’m not a jazz singer. I’m a singer,” insisted Sarah Vaughan in a 1982 interview with Downbeat. Vaughan was even more than that. She was a businesswoman, an activist, and a mentor to young musicians of her day (Miles Davis and Chick Corea among them). In The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan: Queen of Bebop, author Elaine M. Hayes reveals Vaughan to be a powerful force of nature to those around her; this probing, heavily researched biography respectfully pulls back the curtain on the life of one of the most beloved—and private—singers of the 20th century. It’s a joy to read. Hayes loads the text with telling anecdotes, Vaughan quotes, and the observations of Vaughan’s close associates. The result is a gripping story that satisfies your craving even as it leaves you wanting more—just like a Vaughan tune.

The Sarah Vaughan vocal competition, held each November in Vaughan’s hometown of Newark, N.J., started accepting submissions for this year’s contest on May 15; the window closes on September 5. This year for the first time male vocalists will be allowed to compete, marking an evolutionary step in the life of the Sassy Awards that one can only imagine Vaughan smiling upon.

Camille Thurmon takes on a couple of classic showcases for sax players on Inside the Moment: Recorded Live at Rockwood Music Hall, her debut for the Chesky label and third album as a leader. On Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” and Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti,” for instance, Thurmon demonstrates the kind of horn chops that merit serious attention, but she doesn’t stop there. On Vaughan’s “Sassy’s Blues” and the Herb Ellis/Lou Carter tune “Detour Ahead” Thurmon establishes herself as an effortless, intuitive scatter (as horn players who sing often are) and as scary-good with a swing tune (as horn players who sing always are). Thurmon, a runner up in the Sarah Vaughan competition in 2013, will perform as part of the Caramoor Jazz Festival, presented in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, in Katonah, N.Y., on Jul 15.

Many of us think of jazz primarily as a sophisticated urban phenomenon, often forgetting that its roots reach deep into the American countryside. Singer Dominique Eade and pianist Ran Blake remind us of jazz’s rich musical antecedent with Town and Country (Sunnyside), a collection of 18 tunes that explore the connection between jazz and the American folk tradition. This is not an Americana album, however. Eade and Blake share a Third Stream-infused sensitivity to musical form and grace, and in these tunes they find the sacred in the simple. Blake’s spare accompaniment to Eade’s feeling, minimally adorned vocals turns the otherwise straight-forward melodies (“Moon River,” “Goodnight, Irene,” “Moonlight In Vermont”) into art songs.

The front cover of Low Standards (Soundbrush) shows bassist David Finck as a young boy in a striped shirt, holding an old washboard almost as big as himself. The back cover shows him in a crisp suit and tie, bowing his upright. These back-to-back images suggest that somewhere inside this accomplished musician still resides that child fascinated with rhythm and percussive sounds. Over the years Finck’s toolbox has expanded to include other skills beyond the washboard and bass playing: he writes, arranges, produces, and, with this release, sings. Finck makes his vocal debut on the title cut, one of two originals on the disc, recalling Dave Frishberg’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics and matter-of-fact vocal delivery. Chesky recording artist Alexis Cole, a leading voice in contemporary jazz (and a finalist in the inaugural Sassy competition in 2012), sings the second original, “The Way He Captured Me,” a winsome love song perfectly suited to Cole’s warm contralto.     

Jazz/world singer Jocelyn Medina’s new album Common Ground (Running Tree Records) marries jazz idioms with Indian classical music to express eternal messages about the nature of existence. The outcome is a mesmerizing work that simultaneously challenges and soothes. Of note: Medina hosts the Sunday-night jam sessions at Rue B, which feature a different vocal headliner each week.

Catherine Russell, a Best Vocal Jazz Album Grammy nom this year for her engaging and charming recording, Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village), will put in two showings in New York this month: First as part of the Central Park Summerstage series as a guest vocalist with Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks on Jul 1 and then at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with her regular quartet Jul 27-30. 

(Reprinted from the July 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)