Album review

‘Ella Fitzgerald at The Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook’

Ella Fitzgerald at The Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook

(Verve. Album review by Len Weinreich)

For most of her career, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was managed by the incomparable impresario Norman Granz, founder of ‘Jazz At The Philharmonic’ and the prolific Norgran and Clef jazz record labels. Granz always felt that Decca, Ms F’s label in the early 50s, was failing her talent and, after years of frustration, wrested her away from her Decca contract and promptly launched Verve, a new independent label, with Ms F at the centre.

By this time, Ella Fitzgerald was a mature artist at the height of her abilities, far from her ‘Tisket A’Tasket’ beginnings. But Granz had plans and envisaged a more sophisticated future. Together, under his inspired guidance, they embarked on possibly the most ambitious projects ever launched by an independent jazz label: an extensive collection of albums dedicated to the most notable composers of American popular song. First, Cole Porter, then Rodgers and Hart, then Duke Ellington. By project number four, they arrived at Irving Berlin.

George Gershwin, himself no slouch at creating indelible melodies, described Berlin as “the greatest songwriter who ever lived”. Jerome Kern, who’d been known to compose some good tunes, declared “Irving Berlin is American music”. During Berlin’s extensive (he reached 101) and distinguished career, he wrote an improbable number of classic ditties: the Easter anthem, ‘Easter Parade’; the unofficial national anthem: ‘God Bless America’; the quintessential showbiz anthem: ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’; and, never forget, the ultimate Yuletide anthem: ‘White Christmas’.

Clearly, Berlin would be fondly remembered had he only composed the tunes. But he also wrote all his own lyrics as well. Often they contained elaborate rhyme schemes which, considering he was born in Russia, are jewels of language, attaining astonishing levels of wit, compressed imagery and drama (‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’, ‘How Deep Is The Ocean?’ and ‘Supper Time’).

While the arrangements and backing on the first two Songbooks were underwhelming (although No. 3, the Ellington edition featuring the Duke’s orchestra was of a different order), Ms Fitzgerald’s artistry triumphed over any adversity and the entire series is now recognised as a significant cultural achievement. And fortunately, during the planning of the Berlin albums, Granz enlisted respected Hollywood arranger Paul Weston, at last supporting Ms Fitzgerald with the level of orchestral accompaniment she deserved.

Soon after completing the studio sessions, she stormed the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles’ prime open-air music venue, performing fifteen of the songs live, backed by the full Hollywood Bowl orchestra (individuals sadly unidentified, but all probably first call Hollywood studio musos) playing Weston’s arrangements under his direction.

Norman Granz taped the performance, apparently more for reference than release because the audio quality of the tape reel, found stashed away after his death, is sub-studio quality. While, of all unlikely instruments, the harp is clear, the trumpet solo on ‘Cheek To Cheek’ sounds as though the unidentified musician might have been trapped in the loo.

Minor blemishes on a major document. Overlook any audio shortfalls because the energy is tangible: all the electricity and looseness of a live performance. Ella engaging with Irving Berlin is a meeting of titans encouraged by the applause of an enthusiastic audience. The orchestra swings vigorously and Ms F (if not the trapped trumpet player) are received strong and clear. The effervescent singing (plus a few apposite off-mike comments like “well, I changed that melody” after ripping through a super high-octane version of ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’) beg superlatives. Her range is extraordinary. Her rhythmic pulse is faultless. Her enunciation is remarkable: listen how effortlessly she elongates vowel sounds on ‘How Deep Is the Ocean?’. Listen to her delicate handing of waltz-time on ‘Always’. Listen how she dips into her contralto tones to craft a priceless gem out of ‘Russian Lullaby’, a memorial to Berlin’s roots. And how beautifully she navigates the rarely-encountered, subtly chromatic ‘Get Thee Behind Me, Satan’. But most of all, witness how she demonstrates her supremacy over all big band singers with unrestrained versions of ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’, ‘Cheek To Cheek’, ‘Top Hat, White Tie And Tails’, ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.

And that’s why, with sleeve notes by jazz vocal rabbi Will Friedwald plus atmospheric snaps from ace jazz photographers Burt Goldblatt and William Claxton, this album is a rare treat. Bing Crosby once commented: “man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest”. Spot on, Bing.

Tracklisting: The Song Is Ended; You’re Laughing at Me; How Deep Is the Ocean; Heat Wave; Suppertime; Cheek to Cheek; Russian Lullaby; Top Hat White Tie and Tails; I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm; Get Thee Behind Me Satan; Let’s Face the Music And Dance; Always; Puttin’ on the Ritz; Let Yourself Go; Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Ella Fitzgerald, vocals; Paul Weston, arranger and conductor. Recorded Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. August 16 1958

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