If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer
for some hints on how to listen. Background
The Great American Songbooksongs written from the 1920's to the 1950's by giants such as Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart, Duke Ellington and the Gershwin brothershas inspired jazz musicians and singers for generations, supplying the raw material for endless improvisation. In listening to jazz, a good rule of thumb is "Know the song and you're halfway there." So for jazz newcomers unfamiliar with the Songbook, here's an introduction to the work of composer-lyricist Cole Porter. The CD
This classic 2-disc set is an aural encyclopedia of Porter's songs, beautifully performed in 1956 by singer Ella Fitzgerald when her voice was at its best, with slick orchestral arrangements by Buddy Bregman. Although Bregman's violin-laden treatment works with some of the songs, it has a numbing effect on others. I'll note those in some of the track descriptions below, and suggest a few "alternate takes"different singers, different circumstancesthat you may find more satisfying and that you can sample on YouTube. So use this Fitzgerald compilation as a must-have primer on Cole Porter, but also as a jumping off point for exploring the songs further. The songs Disc 1, Track 5, "In the Still of the Night"
Porter, an Ivy-educated son of privilege and lifelong member of the transatlantic smart set, is best remembered for sophisticated, urbane, witty songsfor cleverness above all. But, as you'll hear in this track, he could evoke the pangs of love and longing like no one else. Given the words, the arrangement, the strings (yes, the strings) and Fitzgerald's voice, this is the best version of the song you're likely to hear.
Although the lyrics are brief, notice how Porter evokes three successive moods using just a few phrases. At first the singer is hopeful, reaching out to the loved one ("my thoughts all stray to you"). Then doubt settles in ("Do you love me as I love you"), and finally the singer's thoughts turn dark ("Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight"). Notice too how Porter, in a quiet touch of genius, adds just one extra word at the end of the song, the one that clinches the dark mood. The line now reads "in the chill, still of the night." You can feel it in your bones. Disc 1, Track 2, "Anything Goes"
Here the Fitzgerald-Bregman team falls flat. This is a lighthearted, funny song, written in 1934, about permissiveness gone awry and lives upturned by The Great Depression. But in this version the strings add needless weight and Porter's bawdy, laugh-out-loud lines have been excised, presumably in the name of 1950's propriety.
Alternate take: Nancy Harrow, 1978, in CD Anything Goes
Accompanied by just a plucked double-bass, Harrow does the song with a light, slyly wicked touch, perfect for Porter's naughtier laugh lines ("If Mae West you like, if me undressed you like, well no one will oppose"). Listen too for his wonderful reversal-of-fortune line, written at a time when many wealthy Americans lost everything they had ("and that gent you gave a cent today once had several chateaux"). Porter was known for adding or changing words and lines in a song long after it was written, so there are no doubt more comprehensive versions of "Anything Goes" available somewhere. But this is a good start. Disc 1, Track 6, "I Get a Kick Out of You"
This is an odd one. Fitzgerald is accompanied by only a jazz combo (not a violin within earshot), yet even without the strings she takes the song at such a leisurely pace, and with so little verve, it might have been called "I Get a Snooze Out of You." Other singers have traditionally performed this song as an up-tempo, swinging piece, which accentuates the strangeness of the Fitzgerald-Bregman approach.
Alternate take: Frank Sinatra, 1954, in CD Songs for Young Lovers
Sinatra swings effortlessly on this one, in his first album for Capitol Records. Listen for the signature Sinatra touches: his sliding on a single syllable, as in "le...ave me totally cold," or his lagging behind the beat and then catching up, as in "terr...if...ically too." He wasn't the only one to nail the song, as you can hear in an outstanding 1946 recording by Peggy Lee.
But swinging wasn't always the approach to the Great American Songbook. We've become so accustomed to a jazz inflection in these songs that it's startling to hear them as they were sung on the stage (or in the movies). Listen to the straight-arrow version of "I Get a Kick Out of You" belted out in a 1934 recording by Ethel Merman, who performed it on stage in Porter's show "Anything Goes." The folks in the last row of the balcony could get every syllable, but without the sizzle. Disc 1, Track 9, "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love"
Another track with only a jazz combo, but what a difference! Fitzgerald takes the song at a relaxed, sort-of-swinging tempo, and she seems to be loving every word. Her timing and enunciation are perfect, the better to enjoy Porter's funny rhymes about sexual passionthinly disguised as "love"among creatures large and small. (Every listener develops a favorite line. Mine is "Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it, let's do it, let's fall in love.") You won't find a better version than this one. Other jazz-oriented singers tend to smear the lyrics for the sake of the delivery, but that misses the point: "Let's Do It" is all about words, and Fitzgerald understands that. Disc 1, Track 10, "It Was Just One of Those Things"
Written in 1935 for the show "Jubilee," this song is a perfect vehicle for jazz-oriented singers. Fitzgerald does a satisfying, nicely swinging version, and in an unusual touch, she includes the song's cleverly worded verse. (My favorite line: "As Columbus announced when he knew he was bounced, 'It was swell, Isabel, swell.'")
Alternate take: Frank Sinatra, 1955, in CD Swing Easy
Sinatra's version, sublimely relaxed, is a standout in performance, arrangement and tempo. Listen for the light touch, the sense of easy confidence Sinatra conveyed at this stage of his career (before the voice dulled and the egotism took over). He really is on "gossamer wings" in this one. Disc 1, Track 11, "Every Time We Say Goodbye"
Written in the midst of World War II, when separation was a theme in so many lives, this Porter standard briefly but eloquently captures the ache of leaving a loved one. Most Porter songs burn at least one perfect, unforgettable line into your brain, and this one is no exception. Listen for "There's no love song finer, but how strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye."
Fitzgerald does a fine, workmanlike job with the song. Her tone is impeccable and the strings don't get in the way. What's not to like? But when you hear Carmen McRae's version, recorded two years later (see below), you understand the line between "fine" and "exquisite."
Alternate take: Carmen McRae, 1958, in CD compilation Priceless Jazz Collection
If you've heard McRae's voice only in her later years, when it took on a hard, ironic edge, you've missed a treat. In the mid-1950s, when she was in her 30's, that voice was a sublime instrument, and she applied it to the Songbook with great intelligence and understanding. Unfortunately, McCrea performed and recorded in the shadow of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, the legendary divas of that era, and never got the acclaim she deserved. In "Every Time," listen for the way she combines precision and emotion, for her perfect, unforced enunciation, and for her final "goodbye," at 2:46. You could tune your piano to that note.
Alternate take: Sarah Vaughan, 1961, in CD After Hours
Try this one for something more overtly swinging. Porter's words are irrelevant here, but Vaughan, accompanied by only guitar and bass, creates an airy souffle that's irresistible. Disc 2, Track 4, "Easy to Love"
A perfect vehicle for Fitzgerald's voice at its peak, this one is almost beyond description. Yes, the tone is spot on, the timbre is warm and full, and the lovely verse, in which she's backed by just quiet piano chords, is a jewel. But beyond that, there's a dignity to Fitzgerald's delivery, a quiet recognition of the story Porter is telling. Is the tempo of this piece a little slow? Maybe we're a little fast.
Alternate take: Billie Holiday, 1952, in CD Billie Holiday, 8 Classic Albums
If Fitzgerald's treatment of the song is the smoothest vanilla you ever tasted, Billie Holiday's is an exotic concoction, something you couldn't have imagined until you tried it. Despite her small voice and limited range, Holiday cast an unbreakable spell over every song she took on. Part of it was the tantalizing game of fall-behind-and-catch-up she played with the beat, and part was her unique phrasing, in which she'd twist the notes (and the words) into aural balloon sculptures that unfailingly turned out just right. However she did it, Holiday never met a song she didn't own, and if hers was the first version you heard, it would forever be the only "right" one for you. Psychologists call that imprinting. Holiday fans call it love.
Alternate take: Sarah Vaughan, 1961, in CD After Hours
More souffle, anyone? (See "Every Time," above). Disc 2, Track 11, "Night and Day"
Backed nicely by strings and horns, Fitzgerald does this one beautifully. How can you fault that perfect voice? And yet there's something missing here. Porter's tormented singer is consumed by white-hot desire, by "a hungry, yearning, burning inside of me," but Fitzgerald's approach to the song is somehow passionless, almost detachedyearning, possibly, but certainly not burning.
Alternate take: Frank Sinatra, 1957, in CD A Swingin' Affair
Burning? This one could ignite a fire extinguisher. Although Sinatra recorded "Night and Day" several times, this version was simply dazzling, a showcase for his voice, his understanding of a song's meaning, and his instinct for drama ("From Here to Eternity" couldn't have hurt). Was this the finest recording of Sinatra's career? A case could be made. The punchy, brassy arrangement by Nelson Riddle gives him a perfect backdrop, but the voice tells the story.
As you listen (preferably with the volume turned way up), notice how Porter's lyrics heat up as the song moves ahead, and how Sinatra and Riddle gradually crank up the intensity to match. It's actually a five-step process, with another turn of the crank each time Sinatra sings the words "night and day." At 0:08, with a lush string background, Sinatra is reflective, asking "Why is it so...?" At 1:10, with the temperature going up and the violins gone, it's time for yearning and burning. At 1:46, a wild-edged trombone solo, and then more turns of the crank at 2:08 and 2:37. (At 2:52, you can almost hear that traffic roar.) Finally, at 3:08, Sinatra and Riddle floor it for an incendiary finish. At this point you should feel exhausted. Disc 2, Track 14, "I've Got You Under My Skin"
Forget this bland, spiritless version and listen instead to Fitzgerald's gorgeous treatment of the song in recorded live performances, where she was free from the stranglehold of arrangements and studios.
Alternate take: Ella Fitzgerald, 1964, in CD Ella at Juan-les-Pins
Airy, effortless, wonderful. (Note that this one is also labeled "at Cote d'Azur" on YouTube.)
Alternate take: Ella Fitzgerald, 1968, video with Tommy Flanagan, Manchester, England