Friday, January 13, 2012

That Didn't Take Long...I Find A Perfect Ella Fitzgerald Album With Oh, Lady, Be Good!

The Good: Great vocals, Decent lyrics, A nice mix of songs within the genre
The Bad: None that I can find.
The Basics: A great combination of an amazing vocalist performing exceptionally, Oh, Lady, Be Good! is a perfect album for Ella Fitzgerald!

January is already turning out to be a little more difficult for me than I anticipated with my music reviews. I named Ella Fitzgerald my January Artist Of The Month and have begun to immerse myself into her musical works. Unfortunately, I have gotten in a number of albums that are out of print. Still, I’ve done my requisite eight listens and I’m going! It might appear that I have only listened to the Ella Fitzgerald compilations That Old Black Magic (reviewed here!) and Starlit Hour (reviewed here!), but that is not the case. There are several Fitzgerald albums reviewed and now in my cache.

The reason for this preface is that without knowing how much Ella Fitzgerald I have listened to so far, it might seem surprising to my regular readers that I so early on found an album I am willing to judge as "perfect," which my ten out of ten music reviews represent. But with Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best Of The Gershwin Songbook, Ella Fitzgerald's compilators put together an album that is perfect. The reason it works so well might well be that because Ella Fitzgerald is only a vocal performer, so many of her compilations are an erratic collection of instrumental performances and lyrical compositions that do not seem to fit Fitzgerald. But it seems like George And Ira Gershwin have the musical and lyrical talent to perfectly fit Fitzgerald's vocal stylings. The result, is a powerful, classic jazz album that features Ella Fitzgerald singing memorable and recognizable songs in ways that no other artist has ever managed to do.

With seventeen songs, clocking out at a fairly impressive 62:11, Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best Of The Gershwin Songbook, is a perfect example of how with decent lyrics and more subtle instrumentals, a vocal artist may truly soar. Ella Fitzgerald sings all of the songs. She does not, however, play any instruments; those are all performed by Nelson Riddle's Orchestras. The album was produced by someone other than Fitzgerald (Norman Granz); in other words, Ella Fitzgerald had remarkably little creative control over the album or the material and how it finally came out. Still, even guided by the artistic vision of other writers, musicians and producers, this becomes arguably the essential collection of Ella Fitzgerald's music and one that anyone who wants a truly great jazz album that endures will want.

The reason for this is pretty simple: Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best Of The Gershwin Songbook presents the great articulation and range of Ella Fitzgerald with wonderful lyrics and good instrumentals. On songs like "How Long Has This Been Going On?" Ella Fitzgerald illustrates her extraordinary vocal range. As I was largely unfamiliar with Ella Fitzgerald before beginning this musical exploration of her works, it bears repeating that Fitzgerald's greatness arguably lies in her ability to jump octaves. As a result, Ella Fitzgerald on "How Long Has This Been Going On?" is able to sing slowly and in a sultry fashion as a bass before leaping up into soprano vocal territory. Her ability to leap that far without taking a breath or a rest is extraordinary (try it sometime!). Virtually every song on this album includes leaps or uses of Ella Fitzgerald's whole vocal range.

Songs like "But Not For Me" illustrate Ella Fitzgerald's impressive lung capacity as she ends up holding one note after another for longer than most performers can hold a single note. As she strains down to the lower registers, this is especially impressive. Similarly, on songs like "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," Fitzgerald illustrates an uncommon level of articulation for any artist or performer. This song - which I had only heard in abbreviated forms prior to this album - is the one with lines like "You say tomato, I say tomato" (which should have been read "tomah-toe," "toe-mato") is a tough song to wrap one's lips around with any consistency and she does it flawlessly, mixing together the varied pronunciations and breaking them up with a tone that makes it clear she is enjoying the wordplay.

The lyrics on Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best Of The Gershwin Songbook have a showtune sense of jazz to them, so they tend to not be terribly complicated, though they are expressive. Many of the songs are about love and some of the takes Gershwin expresses through Fitzgerald are clever and unique. So, for example, too few songs equate love with work, yet Gershwin does with the lines "Strolling with the one girl / Sighing sigh after sigh / Nice work if you can get it / And you can get it if you try / Just imagine someone / Waiting at the cottage door / Where two hearts become one / Who could ask for anything more? / Loving one who loves you / And then taking that vow / It's nice work if you can get it / And if you get it, won't you tell me how?" ("Nice Work If You Can Get It"). There is a cleverness to the lyrics and Ella Fitzgerald sings that song with a sense of both irony and enjoyment that illustrates a strong expressive quality to her vocals to bring out multiple meanings to the lyrics.

But Fitzgerald's vocals on love songs are arguably the most impressive on the ballads. So, for example, "Someone To Watch Over Me" has been performed by numerous performers throughout the years. But few bring out the raw emotion of when Ella Fitzgerald sings "Looking everywhere, haven't found him yet / He's the big affair I cannot forget / Only man I ever think of with regret / I'd like to add his initial to my monogram / Tell me, where is the shepherd for this lost lamb? / There's a somebody I'm longin' to see / I hope that he, turns out to be / Someone who'll watch over me" ("Someone To Watch Over Me"). This might be one of the greatest combinations of vocal performance and love poetry in English music: if Gershwin is the musical Shakespeare, then Fitzgerald is that bard's greatest performer. The lines fit her emotional and vocal range perfectly.

This is not to say that all of the songs are absolute lyrical masterworks. For example, "Embracable You" has a pretty simple rhyme scheme "I love all the many charms about you / Above all, I want my arms about you / Don't be a naughty baby / Come to mama, come to mama do / My sweet embraceable you." Still, the song is better than most performers ever achieve in terms of vocal quality. In other words, when the lyrics are not strong enough, Fitzgerald's vocals more than make up for the lack.

Unlike many of the big band and swing jazz performances of Ella Fitzgerald's that I have heard so far, on Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best Of The Gershwin Songbook Ella Fitzgerald's vocals are the dominant instrument. So, the piano and trumpet driven orchestra that accompanies her acts as her accompaniment, never overwhelming her voice. This is well mixed in that regard and it is also a credit to the album that there are no long instrumentals that have nothing really to do with Ella Fitzgerald. The result is an album that highlights well Ella Fitzgerald and her talents. And it is perfect for those who want an ultimate Ella Fitzgerald musical experience.

The best tracks are "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," and while there are no bad tracks on the album, "He Loves And She Loves" is a bit more simple than the other songs on the album.

For other jazz recordings or works by former Artist Of The Month selections, please check out my reviews of:
Stevie Wonder - The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie
Wilson Pickett - It Ain’t Easy: The Essentials
Sheryl Crow - Hits And Rarities


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page!

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