Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Exactly What One Might Expect, Pairing Ella And Louis: A Good Disc!

The Good: Great vocals, Wonderful performing
The Bad: Somewhat musically and lyrically limited.
The Basics: When Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong team up, the resulting Ella And Louis album is impressive, if not terribly repeatable.

I have been pretty open - as I have delved right into my January Artist Of The Month Ella Fitzgerald - about how I have had very limited experiences with jazz music. Even so, it did not take me long to learn and appreciate much about the vocal abilities of Ella Fitzgerald. And even before I had started my study of Fitzgerald's works, I knew the name Louis Armstrong. He was the jazz trumpeter who I am a little ashamed to admit I often got mixed up with Dizzy Gillespie (hey, I said I didn't know much about jazz!). Louis Armstrong is also a jazz singer and he performed with Ella Fitzgerald back in the day and one of the recording days was August 16, 1956 and those sessions are now on the c.d. Ella And Louis.

As one might expect, when one has two legendary jazz musicians together, there is the potential for truly great music and Ella And Louis is a good example of the talents of both performers. In fact, were it not for the somewhat monolithic quality of the album track to track, Ella And Louis might have been a far better-rated album in my book. As it is, it is a good, but not great or astounding, album.

With only eleven songs taking up 54:12, Ella And Louis is a light jazz album that features the vocal talents of Fitzgerald and Armstrong and the trumpet playing of Louis Armstrong. Neither performer wrote any of the lyrics or music that they perform and neither was involved with any form of the producing end of the album. In other words, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong were used by the studio, but they had limited creative input into what ended up on the album. Perhaps that is why Louis Armstrong has something of a nervous smile on his face on the cover.

Even with limited creative control over the final product, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong show up and give a pretty impressive performance throughout Ella And Louis. This is a universally mellow-sounding album with all of the tracks being performed in slow, generally sultry vocalizations with a classic and fairly obvious jazz sound to it. There is nothing particularly surprising and nothing that does not appear in similar forms on other albums, save the actual combination of Ella Fitzgerald's voice and Louis Armstrong's vocals. At the risk of sounding cynical, because Armstrong is not credited with any form of writing credit, it is hard to determine if any of his trumpeting on this album is actually improvisation. If not, he is merely a player on this album and - at the risk of sounding cynical - one trumpet sounds a lot like another.

What does not sound at all like anyone else is the voice of Ella Fitzgerald. On "Moonlight In Vermont," for example, she is a strong soprano who has more consistent grace with the high notes than the likes of Mariah Carey (for an easy, modern reference). But she has an impressive and extreme range and what makes this album worth buying ultimately is the way she pairs her impressive octaves with Louis Armstrong's strained, growling bass and tenor performances. Most memorable is the pairing of Fitzgerald and Armstrong on "They Can't Take That Away From Me."

On that song, which is a George and Ira Gershwin tune, there is a wonderful back and forth vocally between Armstrong and Fitzgerald. It is a wonderful due to the way each emotes to the other; it becomes an auditory play and the song is actually quite beautiful with Fitzgerald opening "The way you hold your knife / The way we danced till three / The way you changed my life / No, no they can't take that away from me. . ." and the way Armstrong responds "The way you wear your hat / The way you sip your tea / The memory of all that / No, no they can't take that away from me" ("They Can't Take That Away From Me"). On the track the vocalists compliment one another with their blending of voices and their starry-eyed vocal presentation of the simple lyrics.

The song I was introduced to on Ella And Louis, though, was "Can't We Be Friends." This song is made for a duet as it has a female and a male protagonist singing of their insecurities and plans for the relationship between them. As a result, Fitzgerald sings a beautiful, articulate collection of observations and fears through her lines "I thought for once it couldn't go wrong. / Not for long! I can see the way this ends: / Never again! Through with Love, / Through with men! / They play their game without shame, and who's to blame? / I thought I'd found a man I could trust. / What a bust! This is how the story ends: / He's goin' to turn me down and say, / 'Can't We Be Friends?'" ("Can't We Be Friends"). Yes, it happened back then, too! The beautiful thing about the way this song is written is the male counterpart fears that his love interest will be pushed away by that instead of initiating more! It is a beautiful - if emotionally insecure - song and as a duet between these two masters, the song works masterfully.

But not all of the songs are straightforward back and forth duets. In "Stars Fell On Alabama," Fitzgerald and Armstrong harmonize with one another. This is another mellow love song presented by the pair and it is one of their more poetic ones together as they sing "I never planned in my imagination / A situation - so heavenly / A fairy land where no one else could enter / And in the center - just you and me" ("Stars Fell On Alabama"). The pair harmonizes well and one can imagine them well as starcrossed lovers from the vocals.

Instrumentally, Louis Armstrong is given his greatest chance to shine for a long section of "Tenderly," where his trumpet dominates the soft piano for a couple of minutes to establish the tune. And when Fitzgerald begins her singing, Armstrong comes on with subtle trumpet accents that are a beautiful addition to the performance. In fact, on that song, Armstrong's singing is easily secondary to his trumpet performance.

But those who do not like jazz will probably not like this album. It is universally slow and mellow and has a somewhat monotonous quality to it when replayed frequently. For sure, the talents of the two performers are extensive, but their true range is not as evident on this album as it might be by showcasing different musical styles. Still, it is enough to recommend and certainly one that anyone who likes great vocals will enjoy.

The best track is "They Can't Take That Away From Me," the worst track is the fairly unmemorable "Isn't This A Lovely Day."

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


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

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