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Ella’s Songbook series was so popular both critically and commercially that it cast a very long shadow over her other fine work for Norman Granz and Verve. Slowly these sessions are beginning to see the light of day, and Sings Songs for Sweet Swingers is one such example of Ella at her best. It’s difficult to find a bad Ella album, and this 1958 session, recorded around the same time as the Gershwin songbooks, features the singer’s regular potion of swagger, sass, and style—and doesn’t disappoint.
While each of the songbooks focused on the work of a single composer and at times seem like painstakingly meticulous efforts of craftsmanship, Sings features an assortment of tunes, and seems like a much more spontaneous effort that gives Ella an opportunity to cut loose. Much of the credit goes to Frank DeVol here. He made most of his money writing for television shows like My Three Sons and his arrangements feature the immediacy and novelty that one would expect from working in this medium. He uses a very broad palette to create a variety of textures for each tune and makes each song sound different from the rest. From the romantic vibes and piano behind “Moonlight Serenade” to the stomping riff that anchors “Lullaby of Broadway,” DeVol brings a fresh approach to even the most shopworn of tunes. Ella once again proves that she can sing virtually anything and make it her own.
Although Sings Songs for Sweet Singers lacks the transcendent quality that makes the songbook series more than just a collection of pop songs, it is still a highly appealing album. Ella fans will appreciate it; newcomers will enjoy it; and almost no one will be able to say the title three times fast.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.