“Vocal only” distinguishes from those who also play an instrument on the recording; they get their own category. There is no shortage of great female jazz vocal performances on record so it was a hard one to narrow down!
1. Ella Fitzgerald: “Squatty Roo” from Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook
If I were to compile a top 10 list of the greatest scatting performances on record, I suspect 8 of the slots would be taken up by Fitzgerald (I’d probably make a little room for Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae). This ridiculously infections recording (also featuring Ben Webster) is the one that makes me smile the widest.
2. Billie Holiday: “Don’t Explain” from Decca Recordings, reissued on various collections
This track is every bit as sullen as Fitzgerald’s is joyous. Not all of Holiday’s tracks were sad, of course, but she could tap into the pathos and pain at a level unsurpassed in jazz history.
3. Sarah Vaughan: “Lullaby of Birdland” from Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown (reissued under various titles)
I’ve heard it said that “there are Ella people and Billie people.” Perhaps, but although this particular track is only number 3, I think I’m “Sarah people.” This super-swinging track gets extra points for having some wonderful scatting.
4. Maria Booker: “Dindi” from Super Nova by Wayne Shorter
Most of this track consists of some really edgy playing by a band including Chick Corea on drums (!) and Shorter on soprano saxophone. In the middle, though, the great bassist Walter Booker plays the acoustic guitar to accompany his wife Maria, who sings the song in Portuguese. The emotion is disarmingly intense, some of the most moving and raw singing I’ve ever heard, certainly on a jazz record.
5. Bessie Smith: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” reissued on various collections on Columbia
Smith walked a fine line between blues and jazz at a time when the distinctions were blurrier. Along the way she paved the way for many of the great jazz singers (especially Billie Holiday) and established a deserved reputation as one of THE great voices of the 20th century. This 16 bar quasi-blues tune is my personal favorite.
6. Cassandra Wilson: “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” from Blue Skies
This is the one relatively recent track on the list. Mulgrew Miller’s arrangement sets the stage for an extremely appealing, mature performance that ably combines the classic nuances of jazz vocals with the M-Base aesthetic.
7. Abbey Lincoln: “When Malindy Sings” from Straight Ahead
The song is by Oscar Brown, Jr., the basis for it is a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jr., and the arrangement and trumpet solo are by the great Booker Little. Lincoln’s edgy, extremely assured vocals steal the show, however, sounding both old-school and contemporary.
8. Mahalia Jackson: “Come Sunday” from Black, Brown and Beige by Duke Ellington (1950’s version)
We’ll allow this tune to be in a “jazz vocal” list because of the context and because there isn’t a “jazz/gospel” list. One of the most moving of Ellington’s numerous sacred works is revisited here with a remarkably soulful and powerful vocal contribution from gospel queen Jackson.
9. Nancy Wilson: “Prelude to a Kiss” from But Beautiful
This album features a number of great standards and elegant accompaniment from Gene Bertoncini, Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Grady Tate. It also features some of the best singing ever recorded by Wilson, and her navigation of this tricky Ellington melody is irresistible..
10. Jeanne Lee: “Laura” from Newest Sound Around
Jeanne Lee hit the scene with this duo album with pianist Ran Blake. The performances are somehow edgy and sometimes dissonant yet soulful and accessible. This ballad performance of “Laura” is a great example of Lee’s ability to inhabit both of these worlds simultaneously.