In 1956, jazz impresario and Verve jefe Norman Granz recruited Ella Fitzgerald to document, through a series of composer-specific albums, the work of prominent American songwriters from the first half of the twentieth century. These songs, the work of professionals culled primarily from the often disposable medium of Broadway musicals, were on the cusp of becoming musty relics, nostalgia pieces if not forgotten altogether, until Granz’s intervention codified them into what is now modestly known as the “Great American Songbook”. This marketing coup assured that indigenous folk songs and styles would continue to be marginalized, while commercially manufactured music was enshrined as the noblest and purest expression of the American spirit.
In Fitzgerald, Granz had the ideal singer for such musical hagiography. Effortless to the point of detachment, her singing was technically astute and unflaggingly mellifluous, and she was unburdened with the kind of ego that required her to stamp every tune she touched with a unique interpretation. Venturing no controversial approaches and pursuing no speculative layers of complexity, Fitzgerald is always faithful to a neutral reading of the song; for better of worse, her performances never upstage the composer. Outside of the sublime Ellington albums, the typical approach she and Granz and her various orchestrators take adds no recondite jazz patina to trouble the core middlebrow audience that has always been the audience for show tunes.
This approach would have especially pleased Jerome Kern himself, who had no love for jazz, which, anticipating Adorno, he called “the debasement of all music.” Kern, one of the early-twentieth-century architects of the Broadway musical form, is best known for composing Show Boat (with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II), after which he was enlisted by Hollywood to provide songs for such films as Swing Time and You Never Were Lovelier. Some of his most famous songs — “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, “Ol’ Man River”, “They Didn’t Believe Me” — don’t make the cut for this songbook album, but even those with a casual familiarity with standards will recognize most of what does: “A Fine Romance”, “I’m Old Fashioned”, “All the Things You Are”, and perhaps Kern’s best song, “The Way You Look Tonight”, which epitomizes his writing style: a stately, indelible melody that patiently builds toward a soaring resolution.
Originally released in 1963, the Kern installment came at the tail end of the original songbook series, and it feels as though enthusiasm for the project was beginning to flag. Conductor Nelson Riddle, famous for his work on Sinatra’s heralded swing albums from the late fifties, files perfunctory arrangements for several of the songs here. A victim of his own ubiquity, Riddle does little to differentiate his trademark punctuating horn charts and string-section swells from prior works, so everything sounds a little too familiar and too comfortable. The arrangements bristle with intelligence, but they’re smart like a crossword puzzle — the pieces all fit together snugly, but for no apparent reason, simply because the grid is there. Coupled with Fitzgerald’s no-nonsense, nuance-free takes on the lyrics, the result is often period-piece musical wallpaper — luxe and velvety wallpaper to be sure, suitable for the classiest of rooms, but never transcending its place in the background. The main problem is that the listener is never invited into the potential drama of these songs; one rarely feels as though one is inside the lyric, feeling intimately the emotions at stake in, say, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” or “A Fine Romance”. Just compare the stodgy, methodical reading of the latter with Billie Holiday’s acerbic rendering (which can be found on The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 2): Holiday’s version makes us understand how humor and bitterness are made of the same substance; the surprising choices of emphasis and the various rushes and hesitations around the beat are strangely troubling, forcing us to take what might have seemed like a jaunty, tossed-off screwball comedy of a song much more seriously. Pitch perfect yet strangely morose, Fitzgerald’s version plods along with emphases randomly distributed, as if she were fulfilling some mandated quota for fortissimo notes.
But in some respects, these are needling cavils. Even when she’s coasting, Fitzgerald remains one of the finest pop singers ever to have been recorded, and there’s plenty to marvel at, if her graceful facility with pitch and timbre and her flawless tone doesn’t simply make you take her for granted. Her virtuoso navigation through the several octaves of “All the Things You Are” is a clinic on pace and breath control. And her stature makes even fluff like “She Didn’t Say ‘Yes'” palatable. If rarely compelling, the record is always soothing. This is far from her finest work, far from the heights achieved in some of the other songbook offerings (the Ellington is flat-out astounding), but it’s certainly not trash, not the “debasement of all music,” even in its jazziest moments. If one is already an Ella aficionado, you might want this handsomely packaged reissue (complete with original cover art and liner notes, along with a new and appreciative essay by music-biographer James Gavin), but if you’re a novice, there are better places to begin.