Miss Fitz at Her Finest
While the title of greatest female jazz singer of all time might be a question of personal taste, the top spots are usually held down by the truly legendary voices. For some, the brittle and haunted voice of Billie Holiday is the most purely jazz in all its seedy transcendence. For others, Sarah Vaughan’s rich smoldering was the sensual key to earthy rhythms. But for sheer beauty of voice, pitch-perfect and every note warm and crystal clear, none match the captivating Ella Fitzgerald.
Miss Fitz’s legacy would have been sealed early on with her collaborations with Louis Armstrong alone, but her career spanned jazz in a way that few of her peers could claim, crossing the borders of pop vocals and touching down on bebop, swing, and R&B, tying together most of the middle 20th century in song. Though it is the art and craft of the individual authors who is venerated, Fitzgerald’s “songbook” project helped give an encyclopedic reference point to the notion of the Great American Songbook, as pieced together by Basie and Armstrong, Porter and Berlin, and many others. Fitzgerald’s interpretations are the glue that binds that book together, and for many her versions are the definitive ones that inspired countless takes on what we so easily view now as standards.
The Jazz Icons DVD series does a great service in bringing together two performances of Fitzgerald performing live in the height of her popularity and in the midst of the project that would define American music. In keeping with the mission of the series, Jazz Icons is dedicated to providing rare insights into the live performances of the jazz legends who aren’t often anthologized in their performance settings. For every classic jazz album with its fourth and fifth reissue, the live experiences that went along with touring and playing are increasingly lost to time. On this disc, Jazz Icons provides quality footage of Fitzgerald performing first in Belgium in 1957, and then later in Sweden in 1963. Both performances provide rare footage of the period, and both provide some key, first-time-available recordings for the jazz aficionados.
Of the two, the ’57 Belgian concert will probably most readily spark the interest of jazz heads, if simply for the names that make up Fitzgerald’s band on this date. Don Abney is a familiar presence on piano, as is bassist—and Ella’s already-former husband by that time—Ray Brown. Herb Ellis handles guitar on this set in superbly fluid style, and the beat is kept by the storied “Papa” Jo Jones, longtime drummer of the original Count Basie orchestra. If that quartet weren’t enough, the set features guest appearances by Oscar Peterson and Roy Eldridge, bringing together a tight and historical ensemble on stage behind the lady of the hour.
Fitzgerald takes the stage with a smooth, lilting “Angel Eyes”, a signature opening song of the period, and the packed house of the auditorium erupts into applause. It’s Ella at her most relaxed and gorgeous, but she’s ever the energetic performer, and quickly kicks up the tempo with a swinging run through “Lullaby of Birdland”. She returns to balladry with a one-two punch of “Love for Sale”, achingly rendered though never dropping into melodrama, and then a passionate turn on “Tenderly”. These are followed up by the ever popular “April in Paris” and “Just One of Those Things”, both met by enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
As the liner notes mention, the next song in the set is a rarity for the existing footage of Fitzgerald performing live. The up-tempo blues of “Roll ‘Em Pete” captures Fitzgerald showing her chops with a blues number, something she takes obvious pleasure in, grinning her way through the song and popping her fingers in time. She follows up with a look at her comic side on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, starting out in her own voice, then dropping into a soft imitation of Rose Murphy (who popularized the tune), and then taking it down into a near-perfect gravely imitation of her original mentor, Louis Armstrong. She plays Armstrong’s signature growl and scat tropes to the hilt, and when the audience finally catches on, she nearly laughs along with the crowd. For an encore, Fitzgerald closes with the big scat number, this time “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)”. This is the number that sees Peterson and Eldridge take the stage, and while Eldridge’s trumpet blares are a treat, the highlight of the song is certainly Herb Ellis’s guitar solo. Of course, Fitzgerald closes the show by taking the mic again and blazing through a scat and huge chorus finale that leaves her beaming and the audience cheering wildly.
The video on this performance is an interesting experience, the DVD creating an audience watching an audience watching Fitzgerald. There are some tight crowd shots that show audiences both polite and engaged. A restrained group of women with faint smiles cuts to a man whose elbows balance on his knees until a particular chorus bursts through and he claps excitedly. This is, of course, a European audience gathered for a gala evening to witness a popular jazz icon at a time when American jazz music was very much en vogue, but it’s hard to escape noticing that the audience captured on film is very much white, while Ellis on stage stands out for being the white face in a black band. This DVD isn’t concerned with the implications of race in music so much as simply celebrating the performer, and maybe that’s enough here. Whatever the social realities of 1957, either in the US or in Europe, the fact remains that Fitzgerald is performing to a packed house, which speaks volumes on its own.
In contrast, the audience is completely removed from the 1963 performance in Sweden. This footage is taken from a television broadcast, and though performed in front of a live audience, its applause clearly audible (at least it doesn’t sound like canned applause), the camera remains focused on Ella. In some respects, this performance feels slightly more immediate, as the television studio allows for more close-ups and a trained image of Fitzgerald as she sings. As Will Friedwald says in the liner notes, these shots “provide an intimacy unmatched in concert hall or nightclub.” Because the studio is controlled, the shots seem more artful as well, giving this the same pre-music video quality that much ‘60s television recordings of musicians give off.
The band on this date included Tommy Flanagan (who Friedwald notes had already cemented his fame in his work with Coltrane at the time of this performance), Gus Johnson on drums, and Jim Hughart on bass, and this recording is their only captured performance in this arrangement. While the live concert in Belgium had the perhaps more historical performance value, on this set Fiztgerald seems twice as energized and she brings this enthusiasm into each performance. She seems paradoxically more relaxed and more fired up, ready to put on a great show.
This time she kicks things off with a slightly accented “No Moon at All”, keeping with her tradition of opening shows with a ballad, but investing this one with enough kick that it doesn’t feel sappy in the slightest. She follow up with “Just One of Those Things” – something that Friedwald notes is a bit of an unlikely coincidence in the sets, as this song wasn’t regularly performed live, despite its popularity – and this time it feels even more powerful, the band playing it heavier and with a bit more verve. The whole set keeps this pace, even on the ‘20s standard “Runnin’ Wild”, but it’s almost surprising on her rendition of Ray Charles’s “Georgia on My Mind”. Instead of taking it down to a smooth, lilting ballad, Fitzgerald attacks it with a scat, and without changing the tempo, manages to inject it with more soul, in an almost jazz/gospel hybrid. She runs through a light bossa nova with her version of “Desafinado” and then returns to the spiritual in “Hallelujah, I Love Her So”, changing the subject to a “him” and spinning the song into a tight swing number.
For the show closing big scat number, Fitzgerald elects to finish thing up with “Mack the Knife”, turning the song into a full-tilt jazz number with an extended scat coda and slipping into her Armstrong imitation once more, then wrapping up with a full-throated finish. It’s a powerful way to close the DVD, ending on a jubilant note and highlighting the energy and joy that Fitzgerald brought to her performances.
With a full set of liner notes that gives each of these performances historical context from Friedman and a movingly sentimental intro piece from Ray Brown Jr., Ella’s son, this collection goes a long way towards establishing its own importance as a record of one of jazz’s all time greats. As a performer who gave jazz a voice, and as beautiful and pristine a voice as has been heard in music of any genre, Fitzgerald was a wonder of song. This collection helps add to the aura of her history by giving new audiences a glimpse into her renowned live performances, letting us peer back into the past and capture a moment of that energy and beauty for ourselves. For any lover of jazz vocals, this collection is a rare treat and surprisingly well rendered for archival material. For any fan of Fitzgerald, this is as essential and exciting as any new release could possibly be.