Ella Fitzgerald and the London Symphony Orchestra: Someone To Watch Over Me

Pairing her original vocal tracks with new arrangements from the London Symphony Orchestra, Ella's "latest" release featuring some shining moments.

Ella Fitzgerald and the London Symphony Orchestra
Someone To Watch Over Me

Once, in an interview, Björk mentioned Ella Fitzgerald was her favorite jazz singer. While still lauding praise on Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, the Icelandic pop mastermind related her fascination with Ella’s style, in particular, the exuberance and spirit she brought to every tune, from the joyful standards to the sorrowful ballads. While the typical public stereotype of a jazz singer may be someone singing heartbroken songs in a smoky club, Björk commented on how, sometimes, it’s a much braver action to be happy than it is it be sad. That sums up the most beautiful thing about Ella’s musical voice: no matter the topic, no matter the circumstances, she always emanated the vitality and beauty in jazz.

2017 marks the centennial year of Ella birth (back in April — happy belated, First Lady of Song), so the recent wave of tributes should come as no surprise. Articles, concerts, reissues, and now Someone to Watch Over Me, a collaboration between original Fitzgerald vocal tracks with new arrangements performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Within jazz, mixing the work of late masters with newly recorded songs has been a dangerous proposition. Despite the commercial success, Natalie Cole faced criticism over her “duet” with father Nat on “Unforgettable”. Harsher still, Pat Metheny’s attack of “musical necrophilia” against Kenny G for playing along with Louis Armstrong recordings is still noted of in jazz circles today.

What makes Someone different is that, aside from Gregory Porter’s contribution on “People Will Say We’re in Love”, the newly recorded material is more about accompanying Ella than forcing a duet with her (although it should be noted, Porter’s vocals are soulful and blend with Ella’s beautifully). Arrangers James Morgan, Juliette Pochin, and Jorge Calandrelli base their orchestrations on the spirit of Ella’s recordings; they respect the originals’ sensibilities and never force unjustified tempos or textures. It’s this adherence and respect that make Someone work so well.

The LSO’s texture is never overbearing, always complimentary. The thin, high register strings of the album’s title track aid the vulnerability of Ella’s voice, and the subsequent orchestral swells and harp glissandi are all magic, no overindulgence. The trombone following her melody on “Bewitched” is subtle and clever, while the lush harmonies of “These Foolish Things” add to its sentiment rather than overshadow. “Misty” may be the only weak track, undeniably getting a little too sweet at times. Nonetheless, this hardly detracts from the rest of the album.

The inherent problem with putting orchestral musicians in a jazz setting is finding common rhythmic ground. In particular, rectifying the issue of swing, a musical element not prevalent in symphonic music. Swing is a feeling, something that can’t be calculated, despite what misinformed music textbooks may claim. Get it right, and the music comes alive; blow it, and you sound like a joke. Someone handles this issue rather well, and all credit for this is due to the arrangers. While the brass and woodwinds swing with a tight feel, the string writing is catered towards their strengths, specifically with the use of longer, romantic lines and appropriately straight rhythms. “These Foolish Things” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” demonstrate this best: rich colors and tight pizzicatos dressing up the songs in a way a big band shout chorus can’t precisely nail.

While anniversaries and milestone years can result in cash-grab recordings and reissues, Someone to Watch Over Me is a much more honest affair. It shouldn’t be judged for what it is on the surface — a modern recording tailored around a prerecorded vocal track — but instead what it produces: new realizations of Ella favorites with a rich symphonic twist.

RATING 7 / 10