I like coffee. And I like music. It’s just that I tend to get a little suspicious when the two are being sold side-by-side in the world’s largest chain of retail coffee outlets. Maybe I’m just cynical and jaded, but a Starbucks doesn’t strike me as the kind of establishment that would place artistic vision and musical integrity at the top of their list of priorities. I could be wrong, though. Paul McCartney obviously disagrees with me. As do, I’m sure, many of the nearly six million people who bought Ray Charles’ last record—sold right there on the counter along with White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccinos and Iced Caramel Macchiatos thanks to Starbucks’ deal with the folks over at the Concord Music Group, who now own everything from the Stax label to Specialty Records, even the Playboy Jazz imprint (welcome to joys of corporate consolidation). Wouldn’t you know, they’ve even managed to unearth, from somewhere down there in the vaults, thick with dust and cobwebs, some old unreleased Ella Fitzgerald recordings. Just in time for what would have been her 90th birthday, too.
And that’s why you’ll be able to pick up a copy of Love Letters from Ella with your next cup of joe.
Now, let’s face it, it would be pretty hard for anyone—even Starbucks—to make a bad Ella Fitzgerald compilation. The “First Lady of Song” had what was easily one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century—maybe even the greatest—and she recorded more quintessential versions of more American jazz standards than just about anyone else. Not only that, she did it all with a stunning degree of consistency, releasing undisputed classics at every stage of her career—from her earliest days as a young big band singer, through the height of her bebop powers, to her time as an aging veteran. When it comes to Lady Ella, you could put her songs in a hat, shut your eyes, and pull out a tracklist that would put almost any other artist to shame.
Love Letters from Ella proves that the depth of her talent even extends as far as unreleased recordings from near the end of her career. Though the publicity material for the release makes no direct mention of it, it’s safe to assume that most , if not the entirety of the brief, ten-track album is compiled from material she laid down for Pablo Records (now also owned by Concord). It was the last label she would ever sign with, and as age and poor health gradually took their toll on her voice, Pablo was there to document it. Still, while the collection may focus on an older, less energetic, more subdued Fitzgerald, she’s got some of the old spark left. She was also still working with some of her most frequent and famed collaborators: Count Basie, Andre Previn, and Joe Pass. And this is the material that provides many of the highlights on Love Letters. “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” kicks the album off with a bang, Basie and his Orchestra swinging at full-tilt with their blaring horns and soaring woodwinds. “Our Love is Here to Stay” sees Fitzgerald and Previn reworking her take on the Gershwin classic as a down-tempo piece with cascading piano.
Less successful are the four tunes featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. Their work wasn’t actually part of Fitzgerald’s plans for the songs at all, but was recorded earlier this year at Abbey Road. It’s an odd addition to some of the album’s most well-known songs—“Cry Me a River”, “I’ve Got the World on a String”—and one that’s completely misguided. The schmaltzy strings add a layer of cheesy polish that only detract from what could have been raw and intimate moments. Given the source of the compilation, you can’t help but wonder if the decision to bring the LSO on board had more to do with marketing than with artistic vision.
Still. Cash grab or not, this is Ella Fitzgerald. It may be far from the most exciting or rewarding compilation of her music available (you’d do far better to pick up Time’s Ella Fitzgerald collection, for instance, or Verve’s The Best of the Songbooks), but it does feature tracks you can’t find anywhere else. And luckily for us, even when she’s not at her best, Fitzgerald’s immense talent reduces what could have been major drawbacks into minor annoyances. No, not even blasphemous overdubs and multinational corporate greed can overshadow that incredible voice.