Serenade to Sweden

Alice Babs / Duke Ellington

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Serenade to Sweden Review

by Matt Collar

Legendary jazz pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington paired with virtuoso Swedish vocalist Alice Babs for this superb, and somewhat rare, 1963 session Serenade to Sweden. A star on the European jazz scene since the '30s, Babs was blessed with a pristine, highly resonant set of vocal chops that combined the insouciant romanticism of cool-school singers like June Christy with the opera-ready gymnastics of Ella Fitzgerald. Ellington had long been a fan and so when their paths crossed on tour in 1963, he set up a recording session in Paris. Joining them was a well-curated rhythm section of European musicians including bassist Gilbert Rovere and drummer Christian Garros. While technically a small group date, these tracks do evince a symphonic big-band sound with Ellington's unique addition of a four-member French horn section. The result is a set of lush-sounding productions with Ellington framing Babs' angelic vocals in his singularly urbane, swinging fashion. Adding to the symphonic air are Babs' distinctive, wordless vocals, a style in which she splits the difference between opera prima donna and scat singer. It's an approach she takes on many of these cuts including a sparkling, midtempo reading of Ellington's classic "Satin Doll" in which she interprets the melody with improvisational flair. It's a style closer to a horn instrumentalist than your average jazz singer and brings to mind the work Ellington achieved with longtime collaborators like saxophonist Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster. Elsewhere, she takes a more traditional approach, displaying her crisp enunciation and deft phrasing on tracks like "The Boy in My Dreams," "I Didn't Know About You," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Babs also contributes several of her own highly engaging originals with the supple and moody ballad "Strange Visitor" and the buoyant swinger "Babsie."

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