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Gold: Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington

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Album Review

Dinah Washington's digital discography is riddled with compilations that brandish the word "Gold," as in "Golden Classics," "Golden Hits," "Golden Songs," "Golden Greats," "Golden Stars," and "Goldies." All that glitter, however, does not necessarily describe or guarantee well-produced collections. Happily, Verve's 2007 double-disc Washington anthology deserves its title, which simply consists of the word "Gold." Opening with her debut session (for Harry Lim's Keynote label on December 19, 1943) and following her progress across most of her 20-year recording career, this excellent chronological survey documents her triumphs as a rhythm & blues, jazz, and pop vocalist. The real jazz selections, in particular the nearly ten-minute take on "Lover Come Back to Me," demonstrate this gorgeous and powerful woman's "Don't Tread on Me" approach to music, love and life. Her formidable, somewhat volcanic interpretations of Bessie Smith's "Back Water Blues" and the torch song "All of Me" come from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. This historic episode can and should be enjoyed as a scene in the motion picture Jazz on a Summer's Day. Backed by the Terry Gibbs Sextet, Washington grabs a pair of percussion mallets and smilingly intrudes upon Gibbs' vibraphone solo during "All of Me," bumping him aside with a sway of her hips and demonstrating more than passing familiarity with the instrument (not altogether surprising since she originally appeared on the scene as vibe king Lionel Hampton's precocious upstart vocalist). The startling segue from the explosive climax of "All of Me" into the string-laden, chorally sweetened masterwork "What a Difference a Day Made" provides a healthy contrast that might tweak those who disparage such sugary production techniques. The lesson, of course, is that Washington sounded great under any circumstances. Furthermore, she consciously made the decision to record with strings as did Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins. Each of these artists used the chamber or orchestral format to achieve a number of personal goals that included dignity, delicacy, and of course, economic stability. Complaining about Washington's string section is as pointless as poking fun at her wigs, gowns or tiaras. One doesn't focus on Earl Hines' toupee — one listens to the music he plays. Put aside all preconceptions and surrender your heart. Verve's Gold portrait of Washington is a superb tribute to a sublime artist beside whom a lot of other singers sound immature, insecure, insincere, or anemic.

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Biography

Born: August 29, 1924 in Tuscaloosa, AL

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s

Dinah Washington was at once one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the mid-20th century — beloved to her fans, devotees, and fellow singers; controversial to critics who still accuse her of selling out her art to commerce and bad taste. Her principal sin, apparently, was to cultivate a distinctive vocal style that was at home in all kinds of music, be it R&B, blues, jazz, middle of the road pop — and she probably would have made a fine gospel or country singer had she...
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