“Man, woman, or child, Ella is the most!” Bing Crosby‘s much-quoted praise of Ella Fitzgerald is suspiciously similar to Duke Ellington‘s equally famous observation that Fitzgerald was “beyond category.” They were both right: Fitzgerald was much greater than any other jazz singer or any other female singer; over the course of a career that lasted 60 years, she consistently transcended genre, gender and just about everything else. How amazing is it that Fitzgerald was unquestionably the greatest scat singer in all of music, whose nonverbal, improvised flights of fancy consistently amuse and astound; yet, at the same time, she was also the vocalist most associated with the concept of songbook albums, in which she sang the melodies of famous show tunes as “straight” as the composers themselves wanted to hear them? She was a vocal virtuoso, and could do things with her voice that were positively superhuman – she was easily the Tatum and the Heifetz of jazz singers, yet her greatest asset was her warmth, her humanity and her earthiness.
Emergent (The Early Years)
This four-CD set samples Fitzgerald's first two decades in the spotlight, and with more than 80 tracks, it covers a lot of territory — her breakthrough vocals with Chick Webb's Orchestra ("A-Tisket, A-Tasket"), her years as a pioneering female bandleader, her WWII and early postwar hits ("My Happiness"), her pioneering scat extravaganzas ("Lullaby of Birdland"), her early team-ups with The Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Louis Jordan ("Stone Cold Dead in the Market"), and Louis Armstrong ("Dream a Little Dream of Me"). At the time she left Decca Records, in 1955, it was claimed that she had sold a total of 20 million records for the label; it's not hard to see why.
In 1950 and 1954, Fitzgerald recorded a total of 20 duets with the amazingly sensitive pianist Ellis Larkins. The first eight of these constitute her first songbook project, Ella Sings Gershwin, while the remaining 12 equally-classic songs were originally issued as Songs in a Mellow Mood. In the early days of the CD, MCA wisely issued all 20 tracks together on one absolutely essential disc, containing some of the warmest and most heartfelt singing of Fitzgerald's entire career. When Michael Feinstein met her, in the 1980s, he told her that he actually preferred the original piano-only Gershwin album to the more famous later one. Fitzgerald answered, "I know what you mean — it's more intimate."
If Fitzgerald's original 1950 Gershwin album was profoundly intimate, her better-known 1959 package of the same composer's music was nothing less than spectacular: full symphony orchestra rather than just piano, 59 tracks (in the latest four-CD edition) versus the original eight-song LP. Yet nothing in this superlative set, the greatest of all her songbook projects, is remotely overdone: Everything is remarkably subtle, thanks not only to Fitzgerald's own singing but to the superlative, sublimely tasteful, ingenious orchestrations of pop music's greatest arranger, Nelson Riddle. It's impossible to imagine that with any set this large and this ambitious, that you'd be playing it over and over, as you would a great single, but that's exactly what goes on here. (Also available in a single disc best-of set.)
Fitzgerald recorded about a dozen songbook sets over her career, honoring everyone from Gershwin (on three separate occasions) to Carlos Jobim. To me, the 1960 Arlen album is the greatest (after Gershwin and Ellington at least) simply because the three main components mesh so beautifully: the remarkable Broadway-cum-jazz songs of Harold Arlen, the perfectly intertwined jazz-and-pop orchestrations of the formidable Billy May, and the perpetually uncategorizable Fitzgerald. Coincidentally, the Arlen album found Fitzgerald addressing a series of songs that were signatures for many of her peers: Lena Horne's "Stormy Weather," Frank Sinatra's "One for My Baby," Nat King Cole's "It's Only a Paper Moon," and others, yet Fitzgerald easily makes them all her own.
In 1956, Fitzgerald recorded her first with producer Norman Granz, The Cole Porter Songbook; it immediately became one of the major success stories of the LP era, and established the concept of the songbook as a viable force in the music industry. In 1972, Fitzgerald returned to the same songwriter, this time with the brilliant Nelson Riddle as her dancing partner. This second "Cole Porter songbook" isn't nearly as well known as the original, but it's an improvement in every way. Fitzgerald is tart and tangy on Porter's franglais "C'est Magnifique" but smoldering and sultry on "Without Love." The set wasn't only a reunion with Riddle, but also was her first new studio project in several years with Granz. Dream Dancing thus opened the door for Fitzgerald's excellent series of Pablo's albums in the '70s and '80s.
Between 1946 and 1951, Fitzgerald harmonized on eight pop singles with Louis Armstrong, one of her central "inspirators" (to use Satchmo's own expression). However, the two albums of duets that these two jazz icons recorded in 1956-'57, Ella and Louis and Ella and Louis Again, were something else entirely. Essentially, these two savants simply improvised together in front of an equally Olympian rhythm section (Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Buddy Rich); in the process, they connected beautifully to everything: to the songs, to the band, and to each other. These three albums (the third of which was a stunning reading of the score to Porgy and Bess in 1958 — yet another Gershwin-Fitzgerald production) set a new standard for jazz vocal duets in the modern era.
The cover of this 1964 release shows the First Lady and the Count calmly sipping a spot of tea, but the music contained therein is anything but placid; rather, this is one of the most ferociously swinging sets that Fitzgerald ever made. Masterminded by Basie band vet Quincy Jones for Fitzgerald and the Basie-ites, the singer takes the opportunity to re-examine several selections that were already part of the Fitzgerald canon, such as "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" and "Robin's Nest (aka Now That We're Fallling in Love)." Everything swings on this album, even the comparatively slower ballads, like "Dream a Little Dream of Me," the latter with a wonderful organ solo by Bill Basie himself.
Over the years, Fitzgerald worked with other bandleaders, and Duke Ellington teamed with other star singers, but the combination of Ella and Ellington — which extended to several studio albums, a TV special, and a concert tour — was a truly sainted one — quite possibly the greatest collaboration of either career. Their first and biggest project together was the ambitious Ella Fitzgerald sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, which, to this day, still stands as the definitive collection of Ellington's output as a songwriter. As a bonus, the third of three discs contains a lovely instrumental work composed by the Maestro for the occasion, "A Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald."
Fitzgerald was not only the unchallenged master of the songbook album, she was also the pioneer of the live-in-concert recording, and it was this 1960 release that did more than any other to put the very idea of the concert album on the map. First, the idea of a great African American artist bringing jazz and the American songbook to the doorstep of the communists was a potent one at the height of the cold war — especially in that she used a German song, the hit tune from The Threepenny Opera, as the climax of the program. No less importantly, Fitzgerald was literally on fire throughout the entire set, particularly on "Mack the Knife," in which she made a brilliant spectacle of forgetting the words and improvising new ones. It was an amazing jazz moment that, for the grace of Norman Granz, was captured on audiotape and preserved for posterity. If someone ever asked me to name the greatest live album ever, by anyblody, this is probably what I'd pick.
God Bless Norman Granz — for roughly 25 years, he taped dozens and dozens of Fitzgerald concerts, and as recently as 2009, Universal Music was still unearthing "new," previously unissued concert tapes to release (i.e., the four-CD box Twelve Nights in Hollywood). Even amidst gems like her highly successful concert albums taped at the Cote D'Azur, Juan Les Pins, Mr. Kelly's in Chicago, and her 1966 tour with Duke Ellington, the 1958 Rome concert is a standout. It was first issued near the end of Fitzgerald's life to universal acclaim, and has since been heralded as one of her all-time greatest live sets. She begins with "St. Louis Blues," a rare and excellent example of Fitzgerald singing a traditional 12-bar blues, which starts slow and steamy before the singer kicks it into high gear.
A four-disc set (also sampled in a single disc "highlights" volume), The Best of the Concert Years, which amounts to still another package of essential live Ella. We start with a rather amazing appearance in Japan in 1953 by Fitzgerald and the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, which is followed by a 1966 set from Sweden (co-starring Duke Ellington's Orchestra); yet it gets even better from there. The bulk of the remaining three discs, which are drawn from Fitzgerald's many live albums on Granz's Pablo label in the '70s and '80s, show that she still had what it took to turn on a cheering crowd, even at a time when most of her contemporaries were winding down. In terms of energy, dynamism, charisma, and sheer personality, Fitzgerald was, by this point in her life, nothing less than an unstoppable force.
In 1960, Fitzgerald made what might be her only acting role in a major motion picture, a seamy melodrama titled Let No Man Write My Epitaph. She played, of all things, a drug-addicted pianist (in reality, of course, she was neither), but in the course of production, she wound up recording 13 songs accompanied only by pianist Paul Smith. The tracks were eventually reissued on CD under the appropriate title The Intimate Ella, and, indeed, they feature some of her most personal singing — and show that she took a backseat to no one in terms of her ability to communicate warmth, emotion, and to completely put her heart into a song. In this setting, the emphasis is on bittersweet love songs — melancholy but never morose — like "Angel Eyes" and "Misty." One of the standout songs here is titled "Then You've Never Been Blue," and Fitzgerald shows that she certainly has.
Between Take Love Easy (1973) and Easy Living (1986), Fitzgerald recorded half a dozen full-length albums with the brilliant guitarist Joe Pass; some were taken from live concerts, others, like this first entry in the series, were done in studio. It was a counter-intuitive move: in her 60s and 70s, Fitzgerald's voice was starting to show the signs of age, but rather than cover her up, she and producer Granz decided to actually expose her voice than it had ever been before. The tactic paid off: The duets with Pass brought Fitzgerald to new heights of intimate sublimity, and showed the world that she didn't need the mega-chops that she'd displayed as a younger woman to be great. These six warm and intimate albums reveal a side of Ella that was wholly different from anything that had seen before, and show that she was continuing to grow as an artist in her later years.
Transcendent (The Later Years)
Fitzgerald's second-to-last songbook project (there was yet one more Gershwin album in 1983) is not the unmitigated success that most of her other composer-driven sets were; some of the charts on this 1981 release use an electric rhythm section that sounds rather dated 30 years later. Yet it was a noble experiment just the same, and marked the only contemporary composer Fitzgerald would address at any length (too bad she didn't do full albums of Cy Coleman or Stephen Sondheim). There's enough good stuff here to make this one of Fitzgerald's better later albums; besides which, let's face it, there were a lot of worse ways to sound current (thank goodness there never was an Ella Fitzgerald Disco Album). Fitzgerald certainly understands all the rhythmic nuances of these iconic Brazilian songs, and, with the possible exception of Frank Sinatra (on his 1967 meeting with the composer himself) no North American ever made them sound better.
Fitzgerald and Count Basie hadn't been in a studio together for 16 years when Granz reunited them in February 1979 for this studio album, which served as a prelude to a joint concert by the two in Montreux a few months later. (That live event was issued by Pablo as the similarly titled A Perfect Match and also released on DVD.) Both of the 1979 Ella-Basie projects showed this pair of veteran road warriors still could deliver the goods well into their 60s and 70s, respectively. Basie's driving rhythm section, warm reeds, and snazzy brass still suit Fitzgerald like an immaculately tailored gown, and the combination sounds marvelous both on old standards and newer pieces, like the irresistible "Make Me Rainbows" (written by ASCAP Presidents Paul Williams and Marilyn Bergman).
Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson had been working together frequently for more than 25 years (with Jazz at the Philharmonic and Louis Armstrong, and many other sessions) before they finally came together on their only formal collaboration. On one hand, it's as up close and personal as you'd expect a session of voice, piano and bass (Ray Brown) to be. On the other hand, Fitzgerald and Peterson are so exuberant and outgoing, particularly on the strident opener, "Mean to Me," that you'd swear you're hearing a full big band blasting throughout. Indeed, EllaFitzgerald and Oscar Peterson make as much beautiful music together as any 10 symphony orchestras laid end to end.