How important was Ella Fitzgerald to jazz? Well, she inspired the legendary manager/producer Norman Granz to start not one, but two, record labels to release her music. In 1956, Grantz, who had already managed Fitzgerald for years, founded Verve. That label, of course, went on to become one of the most famous and ubiquitous in all of jazz. Granz sold Verve in 1961, though Fitzgerald continued to record for the label before bouncing around among several others during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
In 1973, as Granz felt Fitzgerald and other traditionalist jazz greats were being marginalized and undervalued, Granz started the Pablo label, for which Fitzgerald recorded throughout the ‘70s. Pablo was to jazz what Eagle Rock Entertainment or Sanctuary Records were to rock ‘n’ roll, pop, and alternative music. It was a place where established but no longer cutting-edge acts could sign and release their music without dealing with the pressures of larger, more sales-conscious labels. As such, the Palbo catalog caught many artists, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, in the latter stages of their careers. And Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson were among them.
Ella and Oscar was recorded and released in 1975. That year, the jazz world was dominated with electric fusion albums like Miles Davis’ Pangaea, Stanley Clarke’s Journey to Love, and Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes’ Visions of a New World. Amidst this milieu, an album of swinging, sparsely-arranged standards and showtunes, complete with understated, black-and-white artwork, must have seemed like an utter throwback. Now, three-and-a-half decades later, it would seem at first glance that Ella and Oscar is from the 1950s - ‘60s era. On the surface, the only tip-offs to the contrary are the 58-year-old Fitzgerald and 49-year-old Peterson in the cover photo, and the Pablo label itself.
Each of the nine selections here was previously recorded by Fitzgerald during the ‘50s and ‘60s, some on her famous Songbook albums. That doesn’t mean these recordings with Peterson are insubstantial. On the contrary, they provide new angles from which to appreciate Fitzgerald’s and Peterson’s frankly awesome talents.
Fitzgerald’s voice is a bit deeper, and more than a bit huskier, and her vibrato stretches out more than in her younger years. On “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, for example, she doesn’t have that light, almost floaty, Chet Baker-like quality she gave the song in earlier renditions. For some, even mentioning Fitzgerald’s and Baker’s singing in the same breath is sacrilege. Go back to Fitzgerald’s Like Someone In Love from 1957, though, and the reference makes sense.
In any case, the version on Ella and Oscar finds Fitzgerald putting across a much more worldly, often downright sultry, mood. The first half of the song plays like a slow seduction, as Peterson’s weightless, effortless accompaniment repeatedly dares the vocalist to make a move, only to be forced to settle back down. Fiztgerald makes a move, though, at the two-minute mark. Following Peterson’s lead, the whole song tumbles into an up-tempo swing. When Fitzgerald follows the line, “Where have I been all these years” with “Little wow”, the “wow” is surprised and emphatic, as if she’s answering the question in the first line with the second and is responding to her own long, storied career. This is probably Fitzgerald’s definitive performance of the song.
The selection on Ella and Oscar is heavy on ballads, and an up-tempo jaunt like “I Hear Music” is a welcome change-up. But whatever the song, one impression stands out: Fitzgerald’s enthusiasm remains unwavering. It’s translated in each trans-octave swoop, each syllable of each line, and ensures that Fitzgerald, though she may be approaching 60, still sounds far younger at many moments. As the critic Scott Yanow has pointed out, this very youthful enthusiasm has been Fitzgerald’s only possible flaw as a vocalist, making it almost impossible for her to deliver darker material genuinely. Here, though, the natural aging in her voice, even the occasional rasp, provides the perfect counterbalance. Here is a woman who’s “done it all, seen it all”, and is still in love with singing.
The other impression that stands out on Ella and Oscar is that Peterson was indeed one of the greatest pianists ever. Period. He never oversteps his boundaries because there are none. His piano is singing right along. When he does take a solo, as on the incredible, building interlude on “April In Paris”, he gives new meaning to the term “tickling the ivories”. You could swear the man has three hands, and he maintains a deft touch with all of them. Peterson’s scatting along, often audible beneath the mix, only adds to the senses of energy and synergy. About half the tracks are firmly anchored by Peterson’s old bassist cohort and, incidentally, Fitzgerald’s ex-husband, Ray Brown.
Norman Granz’s Pablo releases may not have achieved the iconic status of many of his Verve ones, but Ella and Oscar is an ideal representation of what Granz wanted to achieve with the label. Far from a nostalgia gambit, it’s a dignified, revelatory, highly-listenable statement from two greats who still Had It.