The craft of producing a top quality compact disc box set has steadily developed over the last dozen or so years. From their humble beginnings as enticements to fans to "come over" to this new format, box sets have evolved over time into multi-dimensional tributes to the artists they feature. Today's best box sets include not only extensive or complete catalogs of music, but also include extensive liner notes, dazzling combination of original artwork and modern graphics, and slick packaging, all of which is intended to entice the fan to make the leap and lay down the inevitably high retail price.
So has all of this effort been successful? Undoubtedly. Box sets dominate the yearly jazz critics' lists of the best reissues, fans love the sets and purchase them in numbers enough that the labels love box sets because of their high profitability. In fact, box sets have become a central focus of most labels' holiday marketing strategy. If you don't believe me, check out the record stores and their advertisements come the end of the year.
Because of all these positives, several jazz labels produce box sets, with more joining the ranks every year. Of all these, two labels earn extra kudos for continually producing top notch box sets: Mosaic and Verve. Mosaic was started with the expressed goal of reissuing box sets of hard to find jazz, with the focus on instrumental jazz. Verve on the other hand, got into box sets slowly, reissuing early sets of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. In the last couple of years, Verve has delved into the box set genre more and more, producing sets that honor artists as varied as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bud Powell, and Stan Getz. Over the last couple of years, Verve has really mastered the "art" of the box set, producing sets that are attractive to the eye, to the ear, and to the wallet...producing sets smaller than the gargantuan double digit disc sets that dominated earlier box set thinking. Verve's newer sets seem to stick towards the three to five-disc sizes, making them a more affordable indulgence for the less than wealthy fan.
Verve's latest addition to its box set roster is The Complete Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong on Verve . This three-disc set brings together every shared vocal performance that the pair ever recorded for Verve, which is comprised of the pair's three albums from 1956 & 1957 ( Ella & Louis, Ella & Louis Again, and Porgy and Bess) and a few live tracks taken from a 1956 Jazz At The Philharmonic concert at which the pair performed. All of the music has been run through Verve's best remastering process and sounds wonderful. The clarity and crispness of the music itself is beautiful to experience, but the real prize here is in the performances.
By the time of these recordings, Ella Fitzgerald had matured from the young talented girl that sang with the Chick Webb band into a woman who quickly became the premier female jazz singer in the world. Vocally and interpretively, Ella was at a high point in her career, signing with swing and confidence, and yet never losing the smoothness and innocence that had marked her early work with Webb. Louis Armstrong, meanwhile, was already widely recognized as perhaps the biggest star of jazz in the world, and was easily one of the world's most beloved entertainers. The pairing of the two was the brainchild of Norman Granz, the head of Verve records and the producer for all three of the albums on this set. It was Granz, who was managing the career of Ella at the time, who came up with the concept of recording the two together, and pursued Armstrong. Constantly touring, Armstrong was a difficult man to track down. But Granz persevered, and this set is a celebration of his triumph.
So just what makes this material so unforgettable? Well, if one were to synthesize the ideal jazz vocal pairing, I have to believe that it would sound a lot like this. Ella's sweetly smooth vocals carrying the melody along, playing with it from time to time, changing it slightly, tweaking the lyrics, making the song her own. Add in Louis's gravely growl of a voice with his unique phrasing and timing, and you really do have a match made somewhere in jazz heaven. The interplay of their voices sounds so good, so natural, that one would assume these two had performed together for several years. Their ability to switch from tender moments of human emotion to rompous rabblerousing to humorous joy together is truly fascinating considering how little they had performed together.
The material for these albums is, of course, almost exclusively standards, drawing heavily on several of the composer which Ella would examine more in depth in her Songbook series, which she began recording around the same time. Regardless of the style of the composer, Ella and Louis had a way of making the song their own, as if they were creating new dialogue with each other, as if the listener was living next door and privy to overhearing conversations. This intimacy is part of what made these recordings so attractive to so many fans upon their initial releases. Forty years later, their spell still holds.
The third disc is the complete recording of Gershwin's "jazz opera" Porgy & Bess. Widely acclaimed as one of Gershwin's finest works now, interest in Porgy & Bess was uneven from its initial release. By the time of this Fitzgerald / Armstrong recording, interest was beginning to pick back up, forming a link with the budding civil rights movement. No two other performers could have elevated this work to higher heights than Ella and Louis. With his playful entertainer personality, Armstrong was, and perhaps still is, the perfect Porgy. Ella's warm voice envelopes the listener, drawing them in as she tells her tales of longing and woe. As a complete project, Porgy & Bess is the natural vehicle for this pair's different, yet undeniably linked, vocal expression.
Overall, this is an excellent example of how to produce a box set. The artists and subject matter are popular, the selections are inclusive of everything the pair did on Verve, two sets of liner notes are included (the originals from each of the three albums, as well as a newly written set that includes interviews with Granz), and the artwork has been faithfully reproduced in the most tasteful and tributory manor. The accordion-type packaging is attractive in itself, and offers the thoughtful design advantage of being just slightly larger than a standard jewel case, making it small enough to carry in most compact disc carriers. But again, even with all of these qualities, it is truly the work of the two giants of jazz song that makes this set undeniably enticing. So start you holiday list today, and while out making someone's holiday by giving this set, make your own by picking it up yourself.