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Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong: Cheek to Cheek

Dan McClenaghan By

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Cheek to Cheek, a four CD box set, collects three classic albums from Verve Records featuring Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald: Ella and Louis (1956), Ella And Louis Again (1957) and Porgy And Bess (1958).

This sequence began before rock and roll had deepened its roots—in spite of the Elvis Presley blossoming—and before The Beatles had arrived to change the music world. The popularity of the long playing record album was picking up speed, with a little help from the Frank Sinatra masterpiece, In the Wee Small Hours Of the Morning (Capitol Records, 1955). This was the context of jazz impresario Norman Granz's decision to bring two of America's most distinctive vocalists into the studio to record the first of the collaborations.

Ella And Louis featured the two singers backed by an outstanding rhythm section led by pianist Oscar Peterson. Fitzgerald and Armstrong couldn't have been in finer form, riding the smooth wave of a prime selection of familiar, mid-tempo Great American Songbook tunes. Part of the appeal was the contrast in vocal styles: Fitzgerald's urbane, smooth-as-silk delivery versus Armstrong's guttural sandpaper growl. Along with Sinatra, these were the singers who defined the art of nuanced phrasing and straightforward, emotional clarity.

One of the common complaints about this disc is the relative paucity of trumpet solos from Armstrong. Valid, perhaps, but the turns he does take are all blue-ribbon interludes inserted into the top notch vocal duets, and for those hungry for more, the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are always available. This was a time when Armstrong was breaking, big time, into a higher level of late-1950s "pop"-ularity, moving away from the niche market—though in those days jazz was a bigger niche—of the seminal New Orleans jazz. And the popularity factor skyrocketed, sending Ella And Louis soaring to number one the Billboard Jazz chart of the day.

To pick a highlight—Gershwin's "A Foggy Day" swings like it never did before and never has since. And throw in a brilliant Armstrong trumpet solo.

Ella And Louis served as the template for Ella And Louis Again (Verve Records, 1957). The high quality of the sequel—the relaxed and easy good-humored rapport, the vocal virtuosity and mastery of the fresh delivery of the familiar tunes all remained unmatched. Oscar Peterson was back—Norman Granz knew a good thing when he heard it. The only difference: seven of the songs are not duets. On these, either Armstrong or Fitzgerald go it alone.

On a roll now, Granz had the pair tackle George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Verve Records, 1958) next. This, perhaps, was a more serious effort. Russ Garcia was brought in to shape the lush orchestral arrangements. With Fitzgerald and Armstrong in the forefront, George Gershwin's 1934 English language opera—a musical interpretation of DuBois Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy—came to life. This Norman Granz/Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald/Russ Garcia rendition is the essential telling of the tale that humanizes America's then—and now—dispossessed African-American segment our population, with a sweeping and unalloyed majestic beauty.

Extras are included: An intro of eight Decca Records singles released before these featured albums, cuts of Ella and Louis live, and a full disc of outtakes from the featured recordings. All high quality performances.

In 1977 the Voyager Spacecraft probe was launched to the stars carrying—on the Golden Record—a selection of the sounds of Earth. Included was Louis Armstrong's "Melancholy Blues" by his Hot Seven configuration. A fitting representation. If another Voyager rolls down the line, Cheek to Cheek would be a good choice.

Track Listing: The Decca Singles: CD1: You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart); The Frim Fram Sauce; Dream A Little Dream Of Me; Can Anyone Explain? (No, No, No!); Necessary Evil; Oops!; Who Walks in When I Walk Out; Would You Like to Take a Walk (Sump’n Good’ll Come From That); Ella and Louis: Can’t We Be Friends; Isn’t This A Lovely Day; Moonlight In Vermont; They Can’t Take That Away From Me; Under A Blanket Of Blue; Tenderly; A Foggy Day; Stars Fell On Alabama; Cheek to Cheek; The Nearness of You; April In Paris. CD2: Ella and Louis Again: Don’t Be That Way; Makin’ Whoopee; They All Laughed; Comes Love; Autumn In New York; Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love); Stompin’ At The Savoy; I Won’t Dance; Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You; Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off; These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You); I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm; Willow Weep For Me; I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket; A Fine Romance; Ill Wind; Love Is Here To Stay. CD3: Ella and Louis Again (continued): I Get A Kick Out Of You; Learnin’ The Blues. Porgy And Bess: Overture; Summertime; I Wants To Stay Here; My Man’s Gone Now; I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’; The Buzzard Song; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; It Ain’t Necessarily So; What You Want Wid Bess?; A Woman Is A Sometime Thing; Oh, Doctor Jesus; Medley: Here Come Da Honey Man/Crab Man/Oh, Dey’s So Fresh And Fine; There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?; Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way. CD4: Disc 4: Bonus Tracks: Ella and Louis Live: The Memphis Blues (Live from The Chesterfield Show) with Bing Crosby; You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart) (Live at the Hollywood Bowl); Undecided (Live at the Hollywood Bowl). Decca Extras: You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart) false start and breakdown; The Frim Fram Sauce false starts/takes 1 and 2; The Frim Fram Sauce alternate take. Ella and Louis Again Extras: Makin’ Whoopee take 1; Makin’ Whoopee take 2; I Get A Kick Out Of You take 2 (run-through) and take 3 (breakdown); I Get A Kick Out Of You take 4; I Get A Kick Out Of You take 13; Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) take 3; Willow Weep For Me take 4. Porgy And Bess Extras: I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ (mono master); A Woman Is A Sometime Thing (mono master); Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? takes 5 and 6; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? take 7; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? take 8; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? take 9; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? insert for take 9; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess? take 10; Red-Headed Woman instrumental.

Personnel: Louis Armstrong: vocals, trumpet; Ella Fitzgerald: vocals; Oscar Peterson: piano (CDs 1, 2 & tracks 1 &2 on CD3); Herb Ellis: guitar (CDs 1, 2 & tracks 1 & 2 on CD 3); Ray Brown: bass (CDs 1, 2 & tracks 1 & 2 on disc 3). Russ Garcia and Orchestra: CD3, tracks 3-17 and CD 4 tracks 1, 2, 3); Buddy Rich: drums (CDs 1, 2 & tracks 1 & 2 on CD3).

Title: Cheek to Cheek | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Verve Music Group

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