In 1956, with the guidance of producer Norman Granz, Ella Fitzgerald began selecting material for the first album in her songbook series, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. Over the next eight years, Fitzgerald would focus on seven other Tin Pan Alley composers, and select from the hundreds of tunes by each the 250 songs to fill her recording project. By 1964, her songbooks had been issued on records, but the work was so massive that abridged versions of the collection seemed necessary simply to process it all.
Verve accomplished a second level of selectivity after reissuing the entire songbook series in 1993 as 16 CDs. “Best of” collections were issued immediately, with The Best of the Verve Songbooks popping up the same year the set hit the shelves. The Best of the Songbooks: The Ballads and The Best of the Songbooks: Love Songs followed shortly after. In 2006, Verve released The Very Best of the Songbooks: Golden Anniversary Edition, which compiled 22 tracks on 2 CDs. These abridged versions work like the transfer of a novel to audio book, important information is lost in the process, but the main idea is still there.
The latest repackaging of Fitzgerald’s work is closer to a Cliffs Notes summary than an abridged songbook. Ella Fitzgerald: The Very Best of the Cole Porter Songbook, and the new hits package from the Rodgers and Hart songbook, each showcase 11 songs hand-picked by Richard Seilel, the man behind the Golden Anniversary release. In fact, six of the 22 songs are found on both collections.
Fitzgerald’s original songbook series only included a very limited selection of songs from each composer. It would have been improbable to record the entire oeuvre of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and the rest of the gang, so, before any culling had to be done for “best of” collections, Granz and Fitzgerald were doing some of their own. But this filtering was seen as interpretation on the original releases. The songs had not been recorded by Fitzgerald, so she was making an artistic decision. She was playing the gatekeeper, choosing how to stylize an artist’s version of the best of the best.
That original creative filtering is impaired by the current “best of” releases: Verve’s new version of Fitzgerald’s interpretation. Both Rodgers and Hart and the Cole Porter songbooks were originally released on two discs; by cramming a slew of hits on once CD, Seilel turns selectivity, which originally was a part of the work, into a liability. Instead of becoming an artistic choice, these new discs limit the amount of song listeners encounter.
Collecting massive amounts of material on single disc collections does make the music more affordable, but with the advent of mp3 and Internet music vendors, these releases aren’t as useful as they previously were. Anyone can make a playlist of hits and cut out the middle man. Traditionally, gatekeepers in charge of the original recordings got to choose what most people heard, either because the cost of the boxed set was prohibitive or the material was oppressively comprehensive. But with instant access to the guts of a recording, there’s no reason to let someone else choose the best songs.
The gatekeeper argument might be reasonable for box sets that contain song after song of alternate takes, but the Fitzgerald songbooks are all complete recordings, and the originals can easily be found on iTunes. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook — all 16 standards, from “All Through the Night” to “From this Moment On” – is available online for $9. Those who are simply looking for the hits can purchase singles for 99 cents each.
But Verve wouldn’t just reissue old tracks without re-imaging them somehow. On these latest discs, Seilel and company turn up the volume at the expense of artistic subtlety and audio fidelity. The original introduction to Rodger’s and Hart’s “Lover” is a full, brassy exclamation: a chord that starts the song with a powerful hit. Though trumpet is at the forefront, the downward motion of the sax section can be heard. It’s much harder to pick out the sax line in Seilel’s re-mastering: a concentrated sound that feels like a sucker punch. Fitzgerald’s voice is also louder, at the expense of diluting the singer’s wide range of expression. Over the entire first two volumes of the songbook set, Fitzgerald works with a range of dynamics, but she never shouts. In general, the music is more full, and the tones more colorful. Seilel’s enhanced dynamic erases most of these vocal characteristics.
Condensing box sets in compilations is an old practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good one. The access to someone else’s favorite tracks is not worth the price tag of re-mastered audio and fresh liner notes. With iTunes and other downloading software readily available – and two-disc recordings of the Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart songbooks already on the market – paying $12 for 12 songs, no matter what the audio sounds like, is a waste of money.