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‘Piano Duets’ Asserts Ella Fitzgerald’s Interpretive Greatness

Though called "The First Lady of Song", Ella Fitzgerald is more lauded for her spectacular vocal sound than for her interpretations of lyrics, but a new reissue should help correct that understanding of her art.

The Complete Piano Duets
Ella Fitzgerald
13 March 2020

Though called “The First Lady of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald is more lauded for her spectacular vocal sound than for her interpretations of lyrics. That is, compared to a fellow jazz vocal icon like Billie Holiday, she didn’t always make songs her own.

Especially on sad songs, Fitzgerald’s skills could appear questionable. Clarinetist Tony Scott once said, contrasting her with Holiday, “Yeah, a singer like Ella says, ‘My man’s left me’, and you think the guy went down the street for a loaf of bread or something” (quoted in Simon Frith’s Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music). If you listen to a song that Holiday rendered heart-wrenching, such as “Gone with the Wind”, and contrast it with Fitzgerald’s swinging version on the 1960 live LP, Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin, Scott’s assessment seems fair.

However, a new reissue should help correct that understanding of her art. Highlighting sessions recorded between 1950 and 1975, The Complete Piano Duets highlights both the beauty of her singing and her interpretive skills on some of the best recordings of her long career.

One of the keys to understanding Fitzgerald’s singing is summed up by multiple singers who have commented, “She makes it sound so easy” to hit difficult notes. The quality of her mellifluous delivery was unmatched, especially in more intimate settings. Although she didn’t sound like she was trying to outdo large orchestras when Fitzgerald sang with them, she could both swing and croon more effectively in small groups and duets with piano or guitar.

Though there are excellent single duets from her lauded Song Book albums and in concert—”Miss Otis Regrets” with Paul Smith, “Lush Life” with Oscar Peterson, and “Somewhere in the Night” with Tommy Flanagan—these are not the main attraction for collectors on this reissue. The virtue of these two CDs is the collection of piano duets from different periods of her career, especially from individual albums on Decca, Verve, and Pablo Records, previously uncollected in one set.

The first recordings on this set are from the 1950 Decca LP, Ella Sings Gershwin, and they give credence to Ira Gershwin’s famous quotation: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” Accompanied by the sensitive, delicate but swinging accompanist Ellis Larkins, Ella’s maturing voice sounds appropriately girlish on “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Looking for a Boy” and full of yearning on a haunting rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me”.

Her voice sounds richer and huskier on the next recordings, taken from the 1954 album Songs in a Mellow Mood, also recorded with Larkins. Her interpretation of and melodic embellishments on a song like “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” help bolster the case of Fitzgerald as a truly classic interpreter of American song as well as possessing an unparalleled voice. Her lovely sound on the slow “Star Dust” and “What Is There to Say” and the more upbeat “Makin’ Whoopee” also back up this argument.

The second disc features 13 duets with Smith recorded for the film Let No Man Write My Epitaph in 1960. These 13 tracks generally lean towards slow, sedate balladry, with Smith’s elegant, melodic piano work serving Fitzgerald’s voice well. The impossibly lovely, classic version of “Misty” is especially welcome as a reminder of Fitzgerald’s interpretive abilities, as are “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” and even the quite slow but well-executed songs like “Then You’ve Never Been Blue” and “My Melancholy Baby”.

Especially on ballads, Ella Fitzgerald did not have the greatest reputation for making a listener feel what the composer and lyricist intended (again, see “Gone with the Wind”), but this set effectively upends that logic. On these recordings, she is a supreme balladeer whose additions to words, such as extra notes for single syllables (melisma), help enhance the performances, rather than distract the listener.

The last tracks on this reissue are from her 1975 recording sessions with Oscar Peterson, whose ornate and swinging style help lift the mood on songs like “Mean to Me” and “How Long Has This Been Going On?” He also proves quite competent with ballads, helping enhance “More than You Know” and “There’s a Lull in My Life”. Ella’s voice, though somewhat diminished here, still impressively swings and makes the listener feel how much joy she took in singing anything while stressing her skillfulness with ballads and other material.

Some might find this set frustrating for its emphasis on slow ballads, but especially given Ella Fitzgerald’s reputation for scat singing and swing-heavy records like “Blue Skies” and “How High the Moon”, this reissue should provide a welcome reminder of the riches of Fitzgerald’s interpretive gifts.

Part of the strength of this set is that it feels like an in-depth overview rather than a greatest hits compilation, surveying how her skills and styles of interpretation shifted over her career without feeling cumbersome to jazz lovers. I wouldn’t recommend the entire reissue for jazz novices, but “Someone to Watch Over Me” with Ellis Larkins and “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Misty” with Paul Smith should provide a solid starting point for the treasures herein.

In the 1999 PBS American Masters documentary, Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live for. Johnny Mathis sums it up well when he argues, “She was the best, the best there ever was. Out of all of us who sing, she was the best.” More than most collections, this reissue bolsters his case.

RATING 8 / 10