One of the most famous jazz singers of all time joining forces with Duke Ellington – arguably the most important composer of the 20th Century – had all the hallmarks of an iconic jazz album. It doesn’t disappoint!
The year 1956 was an important one for Ella Fitzgerald, and with the benefit of hindsight the beginnings of what is arguably the most important series of albums that she would make.
Indeed, the recordings made over the next eight years and known as the ‘Songbooks’ are among the most absorbing vocal performances of the twentieth century.
In 1955 Ella left Decca Records and signed with a new label formed by her then manager, Norman Granz.
At this point in her career, Granz was exactly the right person to help lift her career to the next level.
The singer had worked with the impresario touring and recording for his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts as well as a performing at various clubs and theatres under her own name.
Becoming disillusioned with the music she was performing, she later confessed that she felt that she was only singing bebop and feeling that there was more music out there for her to sing. Norman Granz agreed and immediately set about recording her in a different context for his new label.
Looking at the songs within the Great American Songbook, Granz did not simply set about recording a selection from the repertoire, but instead opted to select an individual composer and record an entire album of their songs with Ella.
In January 1956 Ella started work on the album that would be released as The Cole Porter Songbook, with the resulting music being released as a double album and the first release on Verve Records.
So pleased was Granz with the results that he set Ella the task of recording the songs of more of the great American composers, and so the singer patiently worked through songs by Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Ira and George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and finally Johnny Mercer; all of which were carefully worked out with arrangers such as Buddy Bergman, Nelson Riddle and Billy May.
The odd one out in this impressive series is Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, as this is the only album on which Ella worked directly with the composer and with an established Big Band.
All the other albums had been recorded with a studio band assembled for the recording sessions, but here Ella found herself looking to integrate her by now established vocal style into a band that had spent years on the road together with a sound that was uniquely Ellington. And that is exactly why the music works so well.
Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook is the third album in the songbook series, and like the others much music was recorded resulted in the original recordings being issued as two double albums, and a little later as a four LP set. There are times when the music works so well by the mere fact that perhaps it shouldn’t.
The other songbook albums were so carefully orchestrated and prepared to be almost flawless. With Ellington and his Orchestra, we are presented with a much looser feel in the ensemble and more room for the soloists to have a say too. The other important factor in the equation is that we get to hear much more of Ella’s incredible scatting.
The opening ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ is all scat from Ella on the opening chorus and she is then swept up and carried along by the whole Orchestra swinging hard, and on Johnny Hodges’s ‘Squatty Roo’, and not forgetting a remarkable ‘Cotton Tail’.
In a change of tempo, Ella’s wordless vocalising on ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is beguiling and evocative and works beautifully with the sombre and sparse arrangement.
Working her way through some perennial favourites from the Ellington canon it is interesting to hear how the Orchestra react to Ella’s thoughtful vocals. Her note placement, inflection and timing are impeccable, even against the occasional raggedness of the band but she is unperturbed and has the skill to ensure that the rolling motion of Orchestra does not come off the rails. Indeed, it makes for some exciting listening as Ella’s vocal inspires some wonderful reworkings of ‘Caravan’ and ‘Take The ‘A’ Train’. Particularly impressive is ‘Drop Me Off In Harlem’ and ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If Ain’t Got That Swing’ which is taken at quick tempo.
Of the slower tempos and ballads Ella excels, and it lovely to hear her sing ‘Azure’, one of Ellington’s early examples of his use of bitonality and atonal devices in his work.
Of the more familiar pieces from Duke and Strayhorn are ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ and ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ by a small group are exceptional, but these gems do not sparkle as bright as ‘I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good’ with Ella’s exquisite vocal that is almost eclipsed by altoist Johnny Hodges’s whose solo is pure invention.
Nobody has played the alto saxophone like Hodges, and his sound and phrasing is a still a wonder all these years later.
Perhaps in the shadow of the some of the other Songbook recordings, the Cole Porter and Gershwin sets in particular, this meeting with Duke should not be overlooked. Music like this is often a once in a blue moon occurrence, and when captured at the right time with the right musicians the results are timeless.
And that is what this set of recording is, two of the greats making great music.
Ella Fitzgerald – vocals; William “Cat” Anderson, Clark Terry, Willie Cook – trumpet; Dizzy Gillespie – trumpet on “Take the “A” Train”; Frank Foster, Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster – tenor saxophone; Johnny Hodges – alto saxophone; Russell Procope – clarinet, alto saxophone; Jimmy Hamilton – clarinet, tenor saxophone; Harry Carney – baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; John Sanders, Britt Woodman, Quentin Jackson – trombone; Ray Nance – trumpet, violin; Stuff Smith – violin; Oscar Peterson, Paul Smith – piano; Ray Brown, Joe Mondragon, Jimmy Woode – double bass; Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel – guitar; Sam Woodyard, Alvin Stoller – drums; Billy Strayhorn – piano, narrator; Duke Ellington – piano, narrator, arranger, conductor
Recorded June 15–October 27, 1957
Released on Verve Records