Monday, August 22, 2011


Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1958)

With this, the 19th stop in our musical journey across the post-war decades, we complete the triumvirate, the Holy Trinity of Female Jazz Vocalists of the 20th Century. First was the brilliant and tragic Billie "Lady Day" Holiday, with her iconoclastic phrasing and her ability to wear a song like a personally fitted, gem-encrusted shroud. Then was Sarah "The Divine One" Vaughan, with the mellow warmth and glowing, perfect tone. And now we come to Ella Fitzgerald, the "First Lady of Song", who brought her personal sense of swing to every song she sang, not just the "scat" vocal improvs for which she was justifiably renowned. 

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook is, by reputation, the best in a legendary series of album sets in which Ella interprets the so-called "Great American Songbook". So you have a Black woman interpreting songs written by mostly Jewish writers, targeted specifically at a White, Christian audience/market. In a way, in terms of her impact on the cultural side of race relations, Ella was kind of like Elvis before Elvis

Maybe I'm just not in the mood right now, but I wish I was enjoying the experience of listening to this box set more than I am. It's a long slog - fifty-three songs, many of which are sad and slow - and it obviously wasn't designed to be digested in a single sitting. On certain songs - "Nice Work if You Can Get It", for instance - Ella lets herself swing. But for the most part, she shows a kind of reverence for the material that perhaps it doesn't really deserve - or, more importantly in this case, require. The whole affair would have benefited from a bit more of a fun, loosey-goosey, anything-goes approach... in my humble opinion, at least. 

Don't get me wrong, here. Ella does each song perfect justice - as does the ubiquitous Nelson Riddle, whose arrangements are, as usual, perfect. I'm just saying maybe it's a little too much justice. If you're looking for a definitive collection of Gershwin interpretations, you won't find better. If you're looking for the best of what Ella can deliver, you're probably better off looking elsewhere.

Had I heard it before? Not all collected like this, no.
Do I like it?  I respect it a lot more than I like it.
Am I keeping it? Only the Standout Tracks.
Standout Tracks? "Nice Work if You Can Get it", "S'Wonderful", "Strike Up The Band", "Slap That Bass", "Embraceable You"

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