Ella Fitzgerald may very well have owned the greatest female singing voice American music has ever seen. And that’s not an over-statement. Forget about the fact that it had range that included a remarkable three octaves. Think of its style, its heart. One listen to any of her countless performances, live or studio, will immediately wash away all thought of other female vocalists who ever claimed to have soul, virtuosity, honesty or tone. Ella’s voice isn’t just legendary. It’s the impossible bar wannabe legends aim for when concocting a voice.
That’s mostly why her 1986 release with guitarist Joe Pass, Easy Living, is able to survive with as much grace and impression as it does today with Original Jazz Classics’ recent re-release of the album that adds author and professor Tad Hershorn’s liner notes and two previously unreleased takes on songs that appeared on the original set.
The first bonus track, a third alternate take on Benny Goodman, Mitchell Parish and Edgar Sampson’s “Don’t Be That Way”, is worth any Ella Fitzgerald fan’s time by itself. The intricacies of the differences between the performance featured on the original recording and this alternate effort is one of the most blatant examples of the singer’s brilliance. Sure, the legend’s vocal scatting that stands above all else on the original release is remarkable in its own right. However, it isn’t until you give the unreleased recording a listen that you fully realize how innovative and talented Fitzgerald was, even in her later years.
Her ability to play off Pass’ excellent guitar work peers through like the sun beating off clouds on a late spring afternoon. Considering the second half of the track is basically a showcase for Ella’s expansive vocal talents, it becomes nothing short of astonishing that she somehow maintains the effect her voice creates while ditching the falsetto she so effortlessly displays on the original take for the toned-down near-hum the bonus offering allows here. Such an act would seemingly be impossible for most any other jazz vocalist of the last 50 years.
The other bonus offering, an alternate take of “Love for Sale”, is equally impressive. Fitzgerald tackles the original take with a sense of finely nuanced subtlety, offering more of a hum than a scat through the song’s first minute. The track’s original take also shows a more mature-sounding Ella, as she uses the wear and tear on her voice as more of a strength than a hindrance. During the alternate version, however, the singer appears more aggressive and impassioned. Another difference between the takes lies in that aforementioned hum. Playing into the more emboldened feel of the performance, Fitzgerald pushes her hums into more of a scat throughout the unreleased version. The move makes the alternate take succinctly more passionate while never losing an ounce of the smooth soul Ella provides throughout the original release.
In addition to these two fantastically revealing additions comes the re-mastering job by Joe Tarantino. His work not only invigorates the original recording, but it also allows new listeners to hear that magnificent voice in a manner that comes through the speakers as though it was recorded yesterday. Pass’ guitar combines wonderfully with Fitzgerald’s voice and the crisp, clear mixing job makes the performances come to life all over again.
Then there’s the actual album itself. Easy Living was the fourth and final release Pass and Fitzgerald offered, putting to rest one of the best guitar/vocalist combinations in jazz music history. The original set of songs here continues to stand gloriously as the chemistry between both Pass and Fitzgerald remains as palpable today as it did in the ‘70s or ‘80s. “My Ship” is the perfect way to open a set filled with exciting journeys and impeccable playing (and it’s also the only time the tune appeared on a recording from Ella, herself). “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” is as good as Frank Sinatra ever offered. And “My Man”, “On a Slow Boat to China” and “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You” all continue to allow room for both guitarist and vocalist to impress in their own signature ways.
“This series of duo recordings are Ella at her best and most original in her later years”, Hershorn writes in his liner notes. He’s right. Easy Living is a captivating example of an artist’s ability to adapt with age, maturity, time and obstacles all while still hanging on to an identity that is most certainly unparalleled. It’s true: Ella Fitzgerald may very well have owned the greatest female singing voice American music has ever seen. And this reissue is reason enough to remind us all that such a notion is indeed not an over-statement.