Saturday, January 28, 2012

Another Worthwhile Ella Fitzgerald Composition! Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook Resonates!

The Good: Great vocals, Interesting jazz sound, Uses the medium well.
The Bad: A few weaker tracks
The Basics: A wonderful mix of songs by Duke Ellington that illustrate a real talent for bringing out the best in Ella Fitzgerald's vocals makes Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook a great album!

There is something extraordinary about immersing oneself in a single musical artist each month in the attempt to truly understand and appreciate their music. For sure, we do not instantly become experts in those artists all of a sudden, but we do gain a greater ability to understand and appreciate the artists who we study by experiencing. So this month I do not claim to suddenly be an expert in the works of Ella Fitzgerald, but I think it is a fair statement to say that I am figuring out quickly what I like of hers. One of the albums I am very glad I was able to get in for January to evaluate was Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook.

Truth be told, I am discovering I like Ella Fitzgerald's works, but I am also wary of the repetitive compilations I have been finding. Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook is one of the compilations that seems to have some of the most original and diverse music Fitzgerald recorded. This fits well with what I have learned of Ella Fitzgerald so far: there are certain writers and composers who seem to be able to bring out the best in her and Duke Ellington may well be one of the artists who "got" her best. Outside his predilection for the big band swing style of jazz - evidenced by painfully long brass openings to songs like "I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues" - Duke Ellington seems able to write and compose works that fit Ella Fitzgerald's extraordinary vocal range and he also seems more than able to give her interesting lines to sing, which improves my overall impression of her and of albums they collaborated on.

With seventeen tracks, clocking out at 69:58, Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook uses the compact disc medium well, coming closest to filling the full capacity of the disc, which is a nice change. There is something infuriating in listening to compilations from such a prolific performer as Ella Fitzgerald and not having full c.d.s to illustrated her talents. But Ella Fitzgerald is simply a performer, an interpreter of the writing and composition of others and on this album, her main producer of art for her to interpret is composer, lyricist, piano player and conductor Duke Ellington. Ellington is more a creative force than Fitzgerald, writing or co-writing fourteen of the songs that appear on this compilation. Ellington's band - a jazz swing orchestra - is conducted by Ellington throughout the album and there are a couple songs that he is credited as the sole writer upon. Neither Ellington nor Fitzgerald was involved in the production end of the album, so there are limits to how much creative control even Ellington had over the results.

That said, those who put together this particular compilation deserve some real credit. They have a great ear for combining Ella Fitzgerald's talents for jazz scatting ("Bli-Blip") with her ability to sing slow and sultry, as she does on "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)." On that song, Fitzgerald's voice rivals the lone saxophone for the raw emotion expressed with her voice, outside the lyrics she is articulating. When the saxophone solo ends its plaintive wail, Fitzgerald effortlessly picks up the emotional resonance that it was emoting and makes it much more human and perfectly beautiful.

Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook is a decent mix of fast big band jazz swing songs ("Take The 'A' Train," "Cotton Tail") and slower, more intimate jazz sounds ("Just Squeeze Me," "Solitude"). In general, the instruments of the band, which are predominately brass and piano are sublimated to Ella Fitzgerald's voice. Still, sometimes the brass brashly comes to the forefront, as the trumpets do on "Everything But You." For the most part, Ellington keeps them restrained in order to present the real musical instrument that is unique to these recordings: the voice of Ella Fitzgerald.

And Ella Fitzgerald has an impressive ability to emote. Even when she is singing fast, she is articulate and expressive. Take, for example, "The E And D Blues (E For Ella, D For Duke)," which Ellington co-wrote. Far from being slow, sad mournful blues, this song forces Fitzgerald to scat and go through scales without any lines. Similarly, she has to verbally quickstep through the lines "My poor heart, gives a start / Like a jitterbug, just won't stop / Mix your crooning, with my spooning / And let me blow my top, mop! / Your love to me I've sworn / On account of mine is y'orn / Bli-Blip, Bobby, Flam, Flam, Flam, Hit the yaddle oddle bayou" ("Bli-Blip"). Try repeating that back quickly and you'll have a new respect for Ella Fitzgerald; she makes it musical!
Conversely, on Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook, Ella Fitzgerald sings some true poetry in her melodic range. She makes the lyrics to "Rocks In My Bed" resonate with her deeper vocals and the emotive force she backs them up with. It is one thing to read the words "There's only two kinds of people / I can't understand / There's only two kinds of people / I can't understand / That's a deceitful woman / And a hard faced man / She took my man away / And ain't goin' bring him back . . . She's lower than a snake down in a wagon track" ("Rocks In My Bed") but when one hears the soul Fitzgerald infuses the lines with through her presentation, it becomes undeniable that she has a talent for bringing something out of the mere words. She takes the heartbreak in the lines and makes them palpable through her vocalizations.

As well, Ella Fitzgerald is an able musical storyteller on some of the songs. The ability to emote is one thing, but to clearly sing a story, as she does on "All Too Soon," is a real talent. Fitzgerald croons "All too sweet / Was our affair / And you put all the sweetness there / What a shame that it's gone / All too soon" ("All Too Soon") in a captivating way, transporting the listener to a time and place filled with love and love lost.

Duke Ellington accompanies Fitzgerald well, conducting his orchestra to accent Fitzgerald's vocals, never overwhelm them. This, also, is the hallmark of this album in terms of the mix of songs on them. There is a decent diversity to the tracks; they are not just dance swing jazz and not just slow and mellow, so it holds up well over many listens. Moreover, Fitzgerald is able to use her three-octave range over the course of the album, which shows Ellington knows how to use her to her fullest.

The best track is "All Too Soon," the low point might well be "Squatty Roo."

For other works by Ella Fitzgerald, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Ella And Louis
Ella At Duke's Place
That Old Black Magic
Starlit Hour
Oh, Lady, Be Good! The Best Of The Gershwin Songbook


See how this album stacks up against other musical works by visiting my music review index page where the reviews are organized from best work to worst!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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