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Sarah!

by

 Leslie U. Harris

 

“Once upon a time...” So all good fairy tales begin, only this one is true. The year was 1942. The place was Harlem's famed Apollo Theater in New York. The event was the weekly amateur contest and an 18-year-old young lady from New Jersey who had learned to sing in church made her first appearance before a large audience. She entered the competition on a friend's dare but she won first prize ($10) and the opportunity to appear for a week (for $40) at the Apollo (she opened for Ella Fitzgerald). On that night the legend began.

Sarah Vaughan would go on to win four Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award. Two of her albums were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The National Endowment for the Arts honored her with its Jazz Masters Award. Renowned musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Roy Haynes, Charlie Parker, Errol Garner, Earl Hines, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis and many more played with her. Singers Mel Tormé, Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra praised the splendor of her exquisite voice.

She appeared in nightclubs and concert venues to international critical acclaim for over four decades. Devoted fans waited for hours in long lines to buy tickets; her celebrated recordings are the essence of mid-twentieth-century jazz. She was invited to perform for U.S. Presidents at the White House; major symphonies asked her to sing with them; her sultry renditions of the George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim songbooks became the crossover connecting popular music with free-form jazz. Her three glorious Brazilian albums, recorded in Rio de Janeiro, are a flawless fusion of toe-tapping American tempos with hypnotic bossa nova beats and remain classics to this day.

Sarah Vaughan brought her operatic-quality, four-octave range and impeccable pitch to a developing postwar jazz genre. One of the finest female singers of her time, her improvisations with bebop ballads morphed into today's sounds. For 45 years she reigned supreme with multiple million-seller hits. Few vocalists could match her superb timbre and splendid timing. As she matured she didn't just sing – her velvety voice created musical poetry. It was not by chance that she was dubbed “The Divine One.” In a lifetime of song, her sound and style profoundly shaped the body and soul of modern jazz. Fittingly, her last recording was with Ella Fitzgerald for whom she had opened at the Apollo Theater 46 years before. When Sarah Vaughan died from cancer in 1990 at the age of 66 the whole world of jazz mourned.

And now there comes another Sarah. Her name is Sarah Ikumu and she, too, learned to sing in church. A seemingly good-natured 15-year-old schoolgirl from London with a charming smile, she auditioned on Britain's Got Talent in early 2017 and wowed the judges and the audience with the reach of her range, vocal control and delivery. After half a dozen notes people began whistling and applauding. A few phrases more and they were on their feet. When she finished And I Am Telling You, one of the most challenging songs in the musical theater repertoire, she had the judges standing and clapping as well. Senior judge Simon Cowell pressed the golden buzzer designating the winner as the audience wildly cheered. It was a magical moment.

Ms. Ikumu began her song with its signature phrase in a deep-throated, well-rounded contralto colored with gravelly inflections and marvelous glides that began and ended on perfect pitch. Her voice ascended confidently without struggle and sweetly blossomed like an opening flower. She hit the highs effortlessly and dived deeply into the lows, her tempo was exactly on beat, the dynamic difference between notes was exceptional, breath control was excellent and all registers were balanced. Her vocal placement was without drift (rarely accomplished with such a complex song), each tone was centered and clear, and her presentation totally matched the lyric. Her vibrato was remarkably stable, even on the longest notes, and she deliciously applied it with a rich intensity. She explored the arrangement instinctively and bent the notes at the end of each phrase to merge perfectly into the next.

Yet intonation was not her only standout. She shaped each luscious syllable in lilting volume variations as she marvelously conveyed the musical story with melodious twists and turns. Ms. Ikumu was not only in control of the song - right before our eyes she became possessed by it as singer and song united until the very last sustained note, which sparkled like a diamond in the sky. In short, she sold us on the song's beauty and we, the enchanted listeners, eagerly bought her powerful performance, The result was a moving emotional effect on audience and judges alike. As if lifted by an unseen force they simultaneously rose to their feet enthusiastically applauding, thrilled at the privilege of hearing such a stunning songstress.

If there were any doubters who thought she was a one-time wonder, Ms. Ikumu proved them wrong in the semi-finals. She stepped into the spotlight in a stylish white dress and began singing softly. She selected an iconic song, Purple Rain, and she nailed it. Her expression was vibrant and the contrast between highs and lows even more dramatic than her original audition, if that is at all possible (she simply inhabits the song). She displayed her superb vocal pyrotechnics in the final refrain when she modulated the notes with a range, control, nuance and feeling that was nothing less than spectacular. Sarah Ikumu is a stellar vocal artist.

It would be hard to believe Ms. Ikumu could top this prima performance but her singing in the finals was equally if not more brilliant. She chose I'll Rise Up and the song belonged to her from the start. Once again she began quietly on a strong note in perfect key. The opening passage was dreamy and enchanting, punctuated with rounded riffs that surprised and delighted. Ms. Ikumu demonstrated her remarkable vocal prowess when she triumphantly affirmed the song's title passage, ripe with promise. A chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” resonated throughout the room while the intrigued listeners drank in her sensual sounds. But she didn't stop there. Wondrous vocal gymnastics flowed forth in a sonorous stream as she electrified the audience with a crescendo of tonal textures. Her phenomenal final note, filled with tension, shook the auditorium like a thunder boom then descended gently as Ms. Ikumu landed us safely back on Planet Earth. Audience and judges alike could not contain themselves - screaming, clapping, whistling, cheering such a virtuoso performance.

Sarah Ikumu is no ordinary singer. We may revel in her remarkable range and be captivated by her powerful presentation, yet no matter how carefully we examine her discipline, her intonation, her projection and technique, at the end of the day we are left with that voluptuous voice and sassy style. We can analyze their attributes but, still, we are forced to face one amazing fact: the totality of her towering talent is greater than the sum of its parts. Here is a vocalist who, if we are lucky enough, comes along once in a generation, perhaps even once in a lifetime. It is absolutely insane that a teenager can sing with this much mastery and maturity but, like the Divine Sarah before her (and to whom she is the worthy successor), Sarah Ikumu infuses her amazing musical persona into our lives to lift our hearts and bring us joy. One is sincerely beguiled by such a surpassing artist. As we immerse ourselves in her lustrous voice we must ask: “Did I just hear that child sing or was I merely dreaming?” And now, at the tender age of 16, she's only just begun.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the great singers of the twentieth century. Sarah Ikumu will be one of the greatest of the twenty-first. Refreshing, unique, extraordinary - we are witnessing the musical birth of someone very special. So sit back, relax and listen because - this girl's got soul!

 

BGT audition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm7gi453_Iw

BGT semi-finals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poxQ1RNnM10

BGT finals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSukVw3O53A

And The Divine One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PI_xb6jSD4

 

December 8, 2017