Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae
For those who look back on the 50's as the glory days of singing never again to be equalled this music will serve either as reinforcement or as a wake-up call. Fitzgerald, Holiday, and McRae all at the same festival! (Sarah Vaughan also sang at Newport in 1957.) Career-wise all three were at the top of their profession. Pipes-wise Fitzgerald and McRae were at their peaks, but Holiday only had a semblance of her voice left. Artistically McRae and Fitzgerald were fine-tuning their approaches, leaving some of their youthful excesses behind. Holiday was at her best jazz-wise in the 30's (She learned in two years what took Fitzgerald and McRae twenty.) and evolved into a cabaret singer in the 40's. She was erratic in the 50's but could still sing reasonably well on occasion. As with her alter-ego Lester Young she sometimes lapsed into the practice of copying the mannerisms of those who had borrowed their styles from her.
Ella's best records were done in the studio with an orchestra behind her. There are a few exceptions (the duets with Ellis Larkins from the 1973 Carnegie Hall concert for example), but this is not one. On this record the ballads (particularly "I've Got a Crush On You") are more musical than the rhythm tunes. She overuses the device of extending a syllable with "ah", often combined with an octave jump. She sings/recites a coda to "Body and Soul" that unfortunately emphasizes the triteness of the lyrics. Some Eisenhower era lyric censorship "don't go off your beat" (instead of "feet") and 'kisses at the bottom" (instead of "on") lends a period feel. "Air Mail Special" with its gratiutous quotes of contemporaneous hits ("Davy Crockett" for one) and interminable scat cliches is the most embarrassing tune. "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" features lame, unfunny imitations of other singers over an unswinging bounce. Ella tended to sing at the level of her accompaniment, near its most wooden on this record.
Billie sounds tired, but she is more personal than Ella. Her repertoire, her best-known tunes from her career, was stale and did not lend itself to inspired performance. Due to her continued ill treatment of her previous accompanists the first rate pianists of her time refused to work with her. Mal Waldron, a competent composer/jazz soloist, was nowhere near Jimmy Rowles, Hank Jones, or John Lewis at feel for tempo or picking up on spontaneous cues. By the time she gets to "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" she is out of breath. Not to worryWaldron charges ahead full steam.
McRae actually comes off best of the three. "Midnight Sun" is relatively straight, but she does some little things (like skipping the pauses after "ember" and "December" and extending the resolution at the end) to give the piece meaning. Her version of "Body and Soul" blows Ella's away. (Ironically Billie recorded the definitive vocal version of the tune in 1940.) In general McRae sings with feeling which is always a plus. Even "Perdido" doesn't sound worn out (I don't think it could ever sound fresh.)
Track Listing: This Can't Be Love; I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good); Body and Soul; Too Close for Comfort; Lullaby of Birdland; I've Got a Crush On You; I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter; April in Paris; Air Mail Special; I Can't Give You Anything but Love; Nice Work if You Can Get It; Willow, Weep for Me. My Man; Lover, Come Back to Me; Lady Sings the Blues; What a Little Moonlight Can Do. I'll Remember April; Body and Soul; Skyliner; Midnight Sun; Love is Here to Stay; Perdido
Personnel: Ella Fitzgerald - vocal, Don Abney - piano, Wendell Marshall - bass, Jo Jones - drums; Billie Holiday - vocal, Mal Waldron - piano, Joe Benjamin - bass, Jo Jones - drums; Carmen McRae - vocal & piano, Junior Mance - piano, Ray Bryant - piano, Ike Isaacs - bass, Jimmy Cobb - drums, Specs Wright - drums.