Created as an aural companion to a recent PBS documentary, this marvelous compilation features some of Ella Fitzgerald’s best work for Decca and Verve from 1937 to 1966. Her sheer versatility is what comes through first and foremost, making one question critics who lament Fitzgerald’s alleged stylistic limitations. She’s a small-group bebop juggernaut on scat masterpieces like "How High the Moon," "Perdido," "Oh, Lady Be Good," and "Airmail Special." She’s a reflective and moving balladeer on "Body and Soul," "Yesterdays," "Lover Man," "Midnight Sun," and even the slightly corny Bob Hope theme song "Thanks for the Memory" (arranged for Ella by André Previn). She’s an exuberant yet poised belter on songbook classics such as "Ridin’ High" and "The Lady Is A Tramp." And she brings her one-of-a-kind comic touch to "Mr. Paganini," "Mack the Knife," and "Bill Bailey."
Some notable instrumentalists make brief appearances during the course of this double album. Guitar enthusiasts will want to hear Barney Kessel in a duo setting with the First Lady of Song on one of her staples, "Angel Eyes." They’ll also appreciate the inimitable stylings of Jim Hall on a slow version of "Summertime." Stan Getz plays tasteful fills on "Midnight Sun"; Louis Armstrong joins Ella for "Can Anyone Explain?"; and Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and Hank Jones are just some of the luminaries who appear alongside her on the Jazz at the Philharmonic stomper "Perdido." At the other end of the spectrum are two tracks on which Ella is joined only by a pianist — Paul Smith on "Misty" and Ellis Larkins on "But Not For Me." Not having to compete with a full band, Ella lays back and fills the air with her matchless, unadorned sound.
In his book Visions of Jazz
(Oxford, 1998), Gary Giddins flatly states that Ella Fitzgerald "could not sing the blues." One could agree that the blues wasn’t her strongest point, but Giddins’s claim doesn’t hold up after a listen to "Ella’s Contribution to the Blues," or after a viewing of the live clip from Ronnie Scott’s that ends the above-mentioned documentary. And what about her performance on "Duke’s Place," a.k.a. "C Jam Blues"? Apparently she could sing the blues well enough for Duke Ellington’s purposes. In any case, blues phrasing and feeling can be heard in much of Ella’s work, even when she isn’t specifically trying to "sing the blues."
Ella’s breakthrough 1938 hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," was a jazzed-up children’s rhyme which set the stage for the unlikely repertoire choices of Sonny Rollins, among others. Fitzgerald, then 21 years old, got stuck with a "cute little girl" persona partly thanks to this song. Listening to it now, however, one is struck by a certain darkness in the lyric. A "little girlie" has stolen Ella’s basket, and this provokes major distress: "And if she doesn’t bring it back I think that I will die." The foreboding message is emphasized by a minor-key modulation halfway through the arrangement. Some have argued that Ella is too rosy and sunny to communicate true sorrow effectively. But here she is singing a novelty song, supposedly being "cute," and yet conveying a sense of great fear. Ella is very capable, then, of telling sad stories; it’s just that she tells them in unpredictable, counter-intuitive ways. And when someone who’s normally rosy and sunny tells us they’re sad, it’s even sadder somehow.
Tracks, disc one: 1. A-Tisket, A-Tasket 2. You Showed Me the Way 3. Stairway to the Stars 4. How High the Moon 5. Perdido 6. Can Anyone Explain? 7. Ella’s Contribution to the Blues 8. But Not For Me 9. Thanks for the Memory 10. Ridin’ High 11. Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye 12. Angel Eyes 13. Goody, Goody 14. Oh, Lady Be Good!
Tracks, disc two: 1. The Lady Is a Tramp 2. Body and Soul 3. Airmail Special 4. Midnight Sun 5. Summertime 6. Mack the Knife 7. Misty 8. The Man I Love 9. (You’ll Have To Swing It) Mr. Paganini 10. ’Round Midnight 11. Bill Bailey 12. Yesterdays 13. Lover Man 14. Duke’s Place 15. Sweet Georgia Brown 16. Something To Live For