My grandpa’s favorite song to hear me play on the piano is “Misty”, and while playing the same tune again and again over the years can sometimes overdraw on my patience, I do really love this song and especially Sarah Vaughan’s 1959 recording of it. I’d like to take a close look at three renditions of “Misty”, which will allow us to marvel at the beauty of this composition, the sheer brilliance of Sarah Vaughan as a vocalist, and to consider the various turns taken in jazz during this period.
“Misty” is one of those great jazz tunes of the 1950’s that still has the simplicity of the 32-bar format of older standards, but the whimsical schmaltz you hear in later 50’s and early 60’s jazz. Erroll Garner wrote the song as an instrumental piece in 1954, lyrics were added later by Johnny Burke, and many artists have produced noteworthy covers.
Check out Erroll Garner playing the song himself in this video. You’ll hear passages that sound highly ornamental and elaborate, while others have a simpler, more traditional style that is characteristic of earlier decades.
Now for Sarah Vaughan’s cover. If you aren’t familiar with Sarah Vaughan, hurry to Grooveshark.com and get a playlist going. She is considered one of the strongest female jazz artists of the 20th Century. Among her many decades of popular acclaim, she won a Grammy, the “highest honor in jazz” by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the NEA Jazz Masters award. Now that you’re convinced she’s one of the greats, I’ll speak to my personal love for her version of “Misty.”
This 1959 recording is her most famous rendition of the song. “Misty” is a tough one to sing because the melodic line is all over the map, which works much easier for an instrument than a voice. Remember it was originally written as an instrumental piece, without lyrics. The first phrase is made of descending intervals (a third, then a fourth), landing on the 7 of a major 7 chord on the first downbeat. All that to say: it’s a tough phrase to start with and one that requires a very well-tuned ear.
It doesn’t get easier after the first three notes. Throughout the song, Garner takes beautifully rich jazz chords and splits them up into a roller coaster of arpeggios to form his complex melodic line. These counter-intuitive intervals along with several chromatic increments (those of only a half step) make this a landmine of pitch-struggles for any vocalist. Hitting the mark with this melody would be difficult; singing it with expressiveness and whimsy would be even harder.
You wouldn’t know any of this by hearing Vaughan sing, because her musicality and technique give the song a whimsical, easy-going quality that reminds you of a woman humming to herself as she walks down the street. Much like Garner does in his performance on the piano, Vaughan adds her own ornamentation and flexibility to the melody in such a compelling way, that I often forget whether a certain turn of phrase was written in the original melody line or whether it was her interpretive addition. Without losing her place in the chord progression for even a moment, Vaughan playfully stretches the melody with rubato and slides in a way that makes it her own. Vaughan’s rendition of “Misty” is entirely unique yet also thoroughly faithful to Garner’s original composition. Consider the two recordings and find the common melodic thread in both.
Garner’s TV recording is playful, ornamental, and piano-focused. You can tell that the way Garner wrote and played the song is quite different from a sung version, in that the melody is surrounded by all sorts of embellishment and improvisation. This is a polished performance that blends flashy playing and pizzazz with some “good ol’ jazz” style.
Vaughan’s 1959 studio recording is highly produced with full orchestration and has a finished quality that the Erroll Garner recording lacks. This is a classic move in jazz culture of the 50’s and 60’s, namely to take what was written as a simple, standard tune and turn it into a full-blown, orchestrated recording that might sound more like a soundtrack to a sappy movie than a jazz standard. I think of this as dressing up and selling what used to be a raw, in-the-moment performance style of jazz clubs, lounges, and bars. While you may think this more structured version is has less heart, you can’t miss the power that Vaughan brings to the song—even in a studio. Vaughan’s recording maintains a soulful, “jazz club” feel, thanks to her vocal stylizing. Notice her final note of the song, where she gives a rough, throaty quality to her tone.
Finally, let’s consider one more adaptation of “Misty”, a televised recording of Vaughan with her trio (piano, bass, drums). More than the studio recording of 1959, this is all about the voice. The instruments merely provide a swell of support underneath her as she sails along, effortlessly and artistically turning the melody line into her own creation. I appreciate how fitting is the cinematography: close up and personal, for Vaughan is giving us something from her heart. A trio, unlike a large orchestra, follows a simple chart of chords instead of note-for-note manuscripts, which allows for a more flexibility.
Which do you like best?
The wonderful thing about jazz is the incredible license allowed for each performer to interpret a tune in an altogether unique way, while still preserving original composition. Even the same singer and band will give a different performance with each recording. The only similar art form that comes to mind is theater. The same line could be delivered with infinite variations, while the words remain unchanged. What a marvelous space for creativity!