Monday, January 9, 2012

Short But Enjoyable, That Old Black Magic Presents Good But Somewhat Bland Jazz.

The Good: Good vocals, A few interesting lyrics
The Bad: There are better examples of Fitzgerald's talents, SHORT, Musically monotonous
The Basics: In a narrow recommendation, Ella Fitzgerald's compilation album That Old Black Magic has just enough to it to sway non-jazz fans.

When I selected Ella Fitzgerald as my January female Artist Of The Month - and it is worth noting that this was not intended to be the first review in my series - I had to open my mind to something I had not before and expand my definition of "artist." In the truest sense of the word, jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald is not an artist so much as she is a performer. The difference, is all of the difference.

However, it is pretty much impossible to listen to the vocal jazz stylings of Ella Fitzgerald and not be impressed. On albums like That Old Black Magic, Fitzgerald reinterprets songs in the great American songbook with her unique vocal stylings and that level of creativity is exceptional. Playing with familiar tunes - even when they were relatively new - and making them into jazz standards of her own, Ella Fitzgerald creates art with her voice and the wonder of that is that it is easy to listen to now and enjoy.

With only ten songs coming out at 27:16, That Old Black Magic is a more mundane collection of the works of Ella Fitzgerald and a terrible use of the c.d. medium; the capacity for discs is almost three times this, so that so few of Fitzgerald's works were compiled onto this album is unfortunate. It is worth noting that Ella Fitzgerald only appears as a vocalist on this album. She did not write any of the lyrics, she plays no instruments and she was not involved in any way with the production of the album. She does, however, contribute her voice.

That Old Black Magic is a collection of ten jazz songs that are largely in the upbeat swinging jazz vocal tradition, which Fitzgerald helped to pioneer. On "Flying Home," she scats to a rousing brass section, she leads a big band sound with her sultry vocals on "Cryin' Mood," and she sings to danceable beats with "Darktown Strutter's Ball" and "When I Get Low I Get High." And for those who like swing jazz, That Old Black Magic is a great way to get some amazing vocals from Ella Fitzgerald presenting her voice in accompaniment with a rich band sound. Most of the tracks are brass and piano driven with subtle percussion and that works perfectly for highlighting Fitzgerald's voice.

Ella Fitzgerald's voice has been defined as "legendary" so often that it is almost expected in every review. What makes her voice legendary is a great question for anyone thinking of getting into Ella Fitzgerald's music. Largely, it is her exceptional range and her ability to jump throughout the registers. On "Rhythm And Romance" Fitzgerald goes from deep and sultry to soprano within a few bars and even more impressively, she has the ability to articulate perfectly in whatever register she finds herself in. Fitzgerald on That Old Black Magic - both the album and the song by the same name - is articulate and verbally quick, possessing an amazing ability to sing at speed and at all ranges of the register. The ability to run up the scales or skip the middle ranges when jumping from bass to soprano is an uncommon skill and Fitzgerald pioneered much of the sound in that regard. She makes such leaps musical.

And what surprised me when I began listening to Ella Fitzgerald was the diversity of what she is singing about while leaping all around the various scales and registers. Some of it is very classic jazz, which offered a look into the roaring twenties and culture beyond white mainstream culture. Indeed, Fitzgerald expertly sings beautiful storysongs in a swing jazz tradition: "I'll be down to get you in a taxi honey / Better be ready 'bout half past eight / I mean don't be late / Be there when the band starts playin' / Remember when you get there honey / Dance all over the floor / Dance all over my shoes / When the band plays the Jelly Roll blues / Set 'em all alight / At the darktown strutters ball" ("Darktown Strutter's Ball"). Fitzgerald is a musical storyteller on some of the songs in a way that surprised me. As one who has not listened to much jazz, I was impressed by how songs like "Darktown Strutter's Ball" told rather complete musical storysongs.

As well, Ella Fitzgerald sings about interpersonal relationships and that seems to have always been a standard for vocalists. On That Old Black Magic, she sings about the enchantment of love (on the title track and "If Dreams Come True") and she sings about heartbreak as well. The thing is, there is an intriguing discontinuity between such things as her hurt lines like "My man walked out / Now you know that ain't right / He better watch out / If I meet him tonight / I said when I get low / Oooo I get high" ("When I Get Low I Get High") and the faststepping dance beats that accompany those lines. Instead of being heartbroken and damaged, Fitzgerald's musical protagonist is a survivor who is getting her revenge by going out and living well by dancing the night away!

Unfortunately, not all of Fitzgerald's songs are gold from a lyrical standpoint. While I understand performers sing what is put before them (largely) and there is some creativity to the performance, there is only so much that can be done with some songs. So, for example, Ella Fitzgerald does a jazz interpretation of the nursery rhyme "A Tisket, A Tasket." And while this is considered one of her standards and she does well, from a lyrical front, it is something of a dud. After all, there is only so much that can be done with "A-tisket, a-tasket / I lost my yellow basket / And if that basket don't return / I don't know what I'll do / Oh dear I wonder were my basket can be / Oh gee I wish that little girl I could see / Oh I was so careless with that basket of mine / That itty-bitty basket was the joy of mine ("A Tisket, A Tasket")." Of course, with Ella Fitzgerald, despite her childlike vocalizations, there is something of an adult context to be interpreted to the lyrics. I suppose this is what they mean about how jazz was a lot more sexual for the time.

Ultimately, That Old Black Magic is a bare "recommend" from me; it is good for what is here, but the problem is there is so little here. The album leaves the listener wanting more and having had more experiences with Ella Fitzgerald, this is not the most inspired mix of her works. Still, it is a decent enough mix, even if it doesn't use anywhere near the capacity of the c.d.

The best track is "Darktown Strutter's Ball," if for no other reason than I haven't heard it on any other compilations, the low point is the unmemorable "Stairway To The Stars."

For other former female Artist Of The Month selections, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Break Every Rule - Tina Turner
Educated Guess - Ani DiFranco
Beginnings - Shania Twain


For other music reviews, please visit my Music Index Page!

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