Various Artists: The Ultimate Diva Collection

Alison Wong

Various Artists

The Ultimate Diva Collection

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2003-05-20
UK Release Date: Available as import

The term "diva" is synonymous with "prima donna" although it typically projects less of the negative connotations associated with the latter. Its usage has crept across multiple music genres over the past few years leaving the title of this compilation The Ultimate Diva Collection wide open to interpretation. This is my only gripe, mainly because this term has been overused in some recent scenarios and certain exemplars have lowered the bar, so to speak. However, this latest output in Verve's "The Diva Series" really is a definitive compilation, representative of the jazz and blues genres, and the female artist.

You just know you're in for a treat when you hear Ella Fitzgerald on the opening track. Her rendition of "How High the Moon", recorded in 1960 and taken from the original LP Mack the Knife, really sets the theatrical mood and the standard for the rest of the compilation. This is a live recording that breathes life through the speakers. Fitzgerald scats her way through this extended version with high energy, making full use of her impressive range and all angles of her voice that creates an effect like she's verbally tossing multicolored confetti, while sneaking in some Charlie Parker and Gershwin and Porter. She conjures an air of intimacy with the listener: "We're singing it because you ask for it / So we're swinging it / Just for you" and splits into a quasi-coloratura coda with a whispery-sparse drum accompaniment. Seven minutes is not enough. Give us more.

Nina Simone's own arrangement of "Love Me or Leave Me" is one of the best around. Comprising extended Simone piano power, this is from the original LP Let It All Out (1965). The long piano solo interludes are rhythmically aggressive with the trademark finger dexterity that showcases Simone's classical piano training. Other note-worthy tracks include Astrud Gilberto's lyrically accented voice on "Fly Me to the Moon" and the sultry voice of Helen Merrill singing "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To". One nice touch is the inclusion of Natalie Cole's 2001 brassy rendition of "It's Crazy" that brightens up the album. To finish it off, the collection ends with Ernestine Anderson's bustling "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)".

You've really got to give the credit where it's due. Comprising 16 female artists from Carmen McRae to Blossom Dearie to Dinah Washington and Etta James, there are no surprises as far as the selection of artists goes. What makes this compilation stand out from the crowd is both the selection and sequence of music. All too often, compilations of any kind -- genre, artist, band -- fail because they are typical. The selections are bland: signature artists with their signature songs. There are only so many times you want to own Astrud Gilberto's "The Girl from Ipanema" on a compilation. And as good as they are, admittedly it's a relief not to hear any "Porgy"s on this album. When done well, the sequence of tracks noticeably counts for as much as the selection. The songs here flit from performances recorded in the 1950s to as recently as 2001, with a balance between the jazz, big band, blues and swing genres and power of the voice, from the raw sounds of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington to the emotionally impacted strains of Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill.

Given the success of "The Diva Series", it was only a matter of time before Verve would try to capitalize on it with the release of an ultimate collection. It's great to see they followed tradition and got it right.

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