Monday, January 23, 2012

Perhaps Better In Compilations? Ella At Duke’s Place Is A More Mediocre C.D.

The Good: Good vocals, Competent instrumentals
The Bad: Indistinct in that it sounds like innumerable other Ella Fitzgerald albums, SHORT!
The Basics: Despite the overall brilliance of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, Ella At Duke’s Place is a more mediocre recording of a very simplistic sound.

In his collection of essays, Shadow And Act (reviewed here!), writer Ralph Ellison discussed a number of jazz artists whose works were largely undocumented. He defines it as something of a tragedy that there are no recordings - including of specific nights' performances - of jazz artists whose works I could no longer find recordings of to evaluate. I suppose I never truly considered that until Ellison brought it to my attention; that there are a slew of historical documents lost by simple virtue that the artist or performer never received a recording contract or the record failed at the time such that the masters since sank into disrepair or were otherwise destroyed.

I mention this at the outset of my review of Ella Fitzgerald's album Ella At Duke’s Place because I have been listening to a LOT of Ella Fitzgerald lately, which makes perfect sense as she is my January Artist Of The Month. However, Fitzgerald's works seem to fall into an alternate category from the artists Ellison alluded to; she is so well documented and so prolific that there seems to be no end to the number of recordings and compilations produced of her works. As a result, one of the functions of reviewing her works is not to dispute the greatness of the performer, but to steer buyers toward the essential works which would make for the ideal Ella Fitzgerald collection. Ella At Duke’s Place was the second time Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington came together on a recording and my ultimate "not recommend" comes from the fact that the best of the sessions Fitzgerald had with Ellington were later compiled and that actually does make for a better album and track to track, this album becomes somewhat monotonous.

With ten songs coming in thinly at 47:05, Ella At Duke’s Place is a blending of the vocal performances of Ella Fitzgerald and the creative power of Duke Ellington. I shall openly confess my general ignorance to Duke Ellington, outside recognizing his name and associating him with jazz. On this album, he is the writer or co-writer of eight of the songs in that he provides both lyrics and musical composition for those songs. He also is credited with piano and it seems a fair bet that he plays that on the eight songs that the other pianist and composer, Billy Strayhorn, does not. Ellington's creative control extends to conducting the orchestra. Neither Fitzgerald nor Ellington have any form of production credit on Ella At Duke’s Place.

The ten songs on the album are broken into two sides, which fits the original record release of this album. The first side is comprised of five slow, sultry vocal jazz pieces with minimal instrumentation and a sense of Ella Fitzgerald's voice as an instrument used to carry much of musical emotion. The second half of the album is made up of faster jazz tracks that are closer to a big band swing sound. It is worth noting that this c.d. is a remastering of the original, but it does not include any additional tracks. It is kept as a historical document preserving the original. While this might, then, have been an average record, it makes it a slightly below average c.d. as it does not use the medium to its fullest.

As it is the instrumentals are fairly monotonous on Ella At Duke’s Place. On the first half of the album, the instrumentals are smooth and somewhat muted, offering an overall narcoleptic quality to the album. The only time the instrumentals are actually expressive in an noticeable way is at the end of "Azure," where Ellington gives himself an extended coda to perform on. It is there that Fitzgerald also does some soft jazz scatting and that works well, but it is hard to care by the time that finally arrives.

By contrast, the arrival of the brass section on the second half offers a predictable, if obvious contention for the listener's attention. Fitzgerald's vocals work to overcome the brash brass and she succeeds, but track after track, the competition becomes less smooth or impressive and more annoying. While the listener wakes up, the sense that everything is big and there is a Big Musical Statement being made tires quickly. The pianos and brass accompany or compete with the vocals, but none of these songs have great or memorable melodies. Instead, it is the type of music one hears while out for a night on the town, enjoys as part of a good memory, but never actually hunts down to add to their musical collection. That is actually the best possible way I might be able to describe how generic the instrumentals even on the latter half of the album are.

Ella Fitzgerald does her best to save the album and she almost succeeds. The problem with the vocals on Ella At Duke’s Place is that Fitzgerald is arguably most known for her expansive range. On the first half of the album, she does not traverse anywhere near her full range. So, for example, on "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing," Fitzgerald is safely alto, just like in "Azure" she stays in the bassmost portion of her range. When she begins to go wild with bouncing through her many octaves of ability, like on "Duke's Place," she sounds much less controlled and much less able or impressive. It is like Fitzgerald has suddenly come alive or awake and by that point in the album, it is hard to feel energized or interested in it.

This is not to say it is all bad. It is not, not by a long shot. Fitzgerald's ability to sing helps reinvigorate the listener who has been listening to Fitzgerald's works continuously on tracks like "Imagine My Frustration." This work, co-written by Ellington, seems tailor made to bring out the energy in Ella Fitzgerald. Indeed, she becomes the expressive storyteller when she sings ". . . And then in my ear / Someone said to me / Wallflower, my dear, / How come you can't see / They couldn't care less / They're not impressed / As you might guessed / You're in excess / Imagine my frustration with no / Invitation to dance" ("Imagine My Frustration"). Fitzgerald reminds the listener of the strong relationship between jazz and folk as musical storytellers and the upbeat tempo actually helps make Fitzgerald's vocals resonate with the song's requisite emotions.

Similarly, there is a wonderful, if dated, quality to the song "Brown-skin Gal (In The Calico Gown)." On that song, Fitzgerald captures a very swing sense of going out and having fun, in a way that modern songs do not capture. This one, also co-written by Ellington, is a decent and honest embodiment of black culture of the time with lines like "I'd give a dollar / And my heart to follow / To the brown-skin gal in the calico gown / . . . A jack knife for a song / A quarter for a gal in a blue sarong / But I'd give a necklace / Because I am reckless / For a kiss / From a miss / In a calico gown" ("Brown-skin Gal (In A Calico Gown)"). Fitzgerald infuses the lines with longing as the musical protagonist divests himself of worldly possessions in his search for love!

Similarly, Fitzgerald does sultry equally well, bringing out a true passion to lines on some of the songs Ellington wrote alone. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone else crooning "I like the sunrise / 'Cause it brings a new day / I like a new day / It brings you hope, they say . . ." ("I Like The Sunrise") after one has heard Ella Fitzgerald perform it. That is the way of many Ella Fitzgerald performances, but sadly it is the exception to the rule on this album. After nine or ten listens, most of the songs simply blend together and the overall album is largely indistinct, somewhat generic big band jazz, albeit with an amazing singer at the front of it. Still, having listened now to quite a bit of Ella Fitzgerald's works, I know that this is not the best recording of her works, as well.

Ultimately, that is why only the jazz historians will feel the need to keep this album around. For the rest of us, there are compilations which collect some of the best from these sessions better.

The best track is "Imagine My Frustration," the low point is the unmemborable "Passion Flower."

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


For other music reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

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

No comments:

Post a Comment