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Film Review

Ella Fitzgerald Live in '57 and '63


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Ella Fitzgerald
LIVE in '57 and '63
Jazz Icons

Ella Fitzgerald—Live in '57 and '63 is one of nine initial DVDs in record company Jazz Icons' series of previously unreleased concerts. All are primarily from the 1950s and '60s and feature, in addition to Fitzgerald, legends such as Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chet Baker.

Overall, the two concerts chosen (Brussels, Belgium in 1957 and Stockholm, Sweden in 1963) present Fitzgerald in a very direct, music-focused approach (no contextual or historical visual material) that deals exclusively with the performances themselves.

The two stellar rhythm sections—Ray Brown and Herb Ellis with Don Abney (her regular accompanist), or Oscar Peterson (on one track) plus Jo Jones in 1957; and Tommy Flanagan's quartet in 1963—are consistently uplifting in their contributions to the featured artist's performance and innovative in their own right.

The black & white photography is very clear, with some striking and varied camera angles. Several of these shots frame Ms. Fitzgerald with bassist Ray Brown, a two-shot composition that some viewers may find interesting, given their 1947-53 marriage. One of her biographies attributes the marriage's failure partly to their being apart, due to Brown's insistence on touring with Oscar Peterson's trio rather than with the rhythm section accompanying his wife. Their adopted son, Ray Brown, Jr., contributes a touching foreword in the 16-page booklet, which also includes substantive and informative liner notes by noted music critic Will Friedwald.

Unlike most vocalists who subscribe to the belief that audiences need to be "jump started with an up-tempo song, Fitzgerald begins the 1957 concert with her superbly moving ballad treatment of "Angel Eyes," a tune she commonly used as an opener at this time. Her arresting performance of the Matt Dennis classic reminded this viewer of a personal pet peeve: writers who often let Fitzgerald's unparalleled rhythmic mastery and bright, happy tone on up-tempo tunes lead them to feel they must be critical of a lack of lyric sensitivity on the ballads, a narrow view this reviewer has never shared.

A less significant, but still very pleasant part of the viewing experience of this particular concert video is seeing a lighter, more agile Fitzgerald at 40, whose body language reminds one of her initial intention of entering the 1934 Apollo Amateur night as a dancer. Also, viewers familiar with more recent Fitzgerald performances will observe that she projects an even fresher, more natural image on these dates sans the wigs she later always used.

The 1963 performance presents some interesting contrasts from the '57 concert. In addition to having the different accompaniment (Tommy Flanagan's fine quartet), the second concert was filmed in a TV studio, with even sharper photography than the earlier on-location date. Moreover, the TV director was able to include more close-ups, creating a greater sense of intimacy than was possible in the large, crowded Brussels theater in 1957. This Stockholm performance, which is somewhat more commercial in repertorial selections, includes a number of pop songs of the day—"Runnin' Wild," Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So & "Georgia on My Mind," Jobim's "Desafinado and "Mack the Knife"—while the '57 concert consists exclusively of classic Jazz & American Songbook standards.

Both segments are impressively edited, with pacing so tight one is surprised when the end is reached. Regardless of which concert one prefers, it can certainly be said that both programs very effectively showcase this uniquely gifted singer in performances that are representative of her enormous talent at an especially favorable, productive time in her career.

Tracks:Angel Eyes; Lullaby of Birdland; Love for Sale; Tenderly; April in Paris; Just One of Those Things; Roll 'Em Pete; I Can't Give You Anything But Love; It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing; No Moon at All; Just One of Those Things; Runnin' Wild; Georgia on my Mind; Desafinado; Hallelujah, I Love Her So; Mack the Knife.

Personnel: Ella Fitzgerald, vocals; Roy Eldridge (9); Oscar Peterson, piano, (9); Don Abney, piano (1-8); Ray Brown, bass (1-9); Herb Ellis, guitar (1-9); Jo Jones, drums (1-9); Tommy Flanagan, piano (10-16); Les Spann, guitar (10-16); Jim Hughart, bass (10-16); Gus Johnson, drums (10-16).

Production Notes: 56 minutes. Filmed June 6, 1957, at Brussels, Belgium, June 6, 1957 and Stockholm, Sweden, April 3, 1963.

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