Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ella And Louis Again Recaptures Much (Not All) Of The Greatness Of Their Earlier Release!

The Good: Good vocals, Interesting instrumentals (when Armstrong performs), Some good lyrics
The Bad: Didn't they do this already?
The Basics: Good, but not exceptional, Ella & Louis Again reminds listeners of how great their first duet album was more than give us anything truly new.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong represent two definitively American talents and the whole argument for organization to the galaxy by some supreme force might well be made by observing that two such amazing performers existed in the same time, space and medium in such a way that they were generally noncompetitive. That they combined their performing talents for the incredibly successful Ella And Louis (reviewed here!) was astonishing. So, when they returned to the studio and recorded Ella And Louis Again it was like a second strike of lightning.

The thing is, to carry the metaphor, they say that nothing hurts quite like getting struck by lightning the first time. Ella And Louis Again has a similar feel; it is profound, but it is the new thing we are already familiar with. The result is that the impact of the two genius performers harmonizing is dulled and there is less of the sense of the extraordinary pervading the recording as one listens to it over and over again. Still, it is worthwhile.

With only a dozen songs, the duo packs in 54:58 worth of music, making it a generally good use of the compact disc medium (though I was left wanting more for the money). Unlike their prior outing, Armstrong does not contribute any of his own music. As a result, Armstrong and Fitzgerald are simply vocal and instrumental performers of works written by other people exclusively on Ella And Louis Again. They sing songs written by Benny Goodman, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. Fitzgerald performs the lead vocals and Armstrong accompanies her and also plays his trumpet on some of the songs. Neither is involved in the production end of the album.

On Ella And Louis Again, Fitzgerald does no jazz scatting and she stays mostly in her lower or middle ranges of her vocals. On songs like "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket," Fitzgerald starts low, slowly journeys into the soprano octaves, but she does not soar as high as she does on many songs on other albums. Instead, she goes high, but avoids the very highest registers which she is able to do.

The result is that Fitzgerald's harmonizing with Armstrong sounds on this album a lot more safe and (for lack of a better term) pedestrian, as if the two performers are working to meet in the middle as opposed to share the best of their extremes. Armstrong, for his part, sounds virtually identical to how he did on Ella And Louis. His gravelly voice has not altered in tone, pitch or articulation. When he and Fitzgerald perform "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," it is exactly as one might imagine it given his vocals on the prior duet album.

In fact, much of the album is exactly what one might anticipate in a collection of duets from the great jazz performers. There is nothing shocking or audacious on this album that makes the listener sit up and say "WOW, I didn't think they could do that!" Instead, songs like "Learnin' The Blues" illustrate exactly how each artist works and how they fit well together. Instead of harmonizing, on the bulk of the songs, Fitzgerald sings, Armstrong sings and they continue to pass it back and forth. There are very few moments the artists actually sing together. As a result, there is nothing quite like the coda to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" from Ella And Louis on this album that has the two of them jamming together as one fluid, musical entity.

That said, this is not a bad thing at all. The back and forth on the classic song "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" is wonderful. It brings out a playful quality in Armstrong that none of the other tracks have. Even though it is more subdued - and shorter - than some of the versions of the same song that I've heard Fitzgerald perform, Fitzgerald sounds like she is having fun on it and it resonates in a different way than when she performs it solo. This, for those listening to a large amount of Ella Fitzgerald music, is a wonderful thing.

As for the sound of Ella And Louis Again, this album is very mellow. All of the tracks are quiet, piano-driven jazz tracks that sound like the two are sharing a small stage in a nightclub. The accompanists play piano, guitar, bass and drums and the drums are all subdued and keep a slow, contemplative beat. Unlike many of Fitzgerald's albums, this is not swing jazz or a big band sound. It is a much more intimate sound and it works beautifully for both performers!

The other thing that generally works are the lyrics. Fitzgerald and Armstrong might not have had their hands in writing but they - and producer Norman Granz - picked songs that work quite well for both of them. In fact, I am fairly sure I did not enjoy the song "I Won't Dance" until I heard Armstrong sing "I know / that music leads the way to romance / So if I hold you in arms I won't dance . . . / I won't dance madame with you / My heart won't let me feet do things that / they want to do" in response to Fitzgerald's "When you dance, you're charming and you're gentle / 'Specially when you do the / Continental / But this feeling isn't purely mental." The song comes alive as a duet in a way that it never did for me when I heard Fitzgerald sing it alone. Moreover, there is no one better suited to take the male portion of it to Fitzgerald's feminine than Armstrong. And for those of us raised on much more explicit lyrics, it is fun to hear how the borders were initially pushed with lines like those.

In a musically similar way, Vernon Duke's song "Autumn In New York" fits Fitzgerald's vocal sensibilities perfectly. Fitzgerald takes the poetry of lines like "Why does it seem so inviting / Autumn in New York / It spells the thrill of first-nighting / Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds / In canyons of steel / They're making me feel - I'm home" ("Autumn In New York") come alive and seem wrenching and soulful. On Ella And Louis Again there are few songs like that, but they shine when they do appear.

Unfortunately, Ella And Louis Again is not without lyrical duds. Seeing an album devoted to the lyrics of Jerome Kerns ready for me to listen to gives me pause when I consider Kerns' song "A Fine Romance" on this album. Repetitive with the title and falling flat with its predictable rhymes, "A Fine Romance" disappoints. When Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong cannot make the poetics of "A fine romance with no quarrels / With no insults and all morals / I've never mussed the crease / In your blue serge pants / I never get the chance / This is a fine romance" ("A Fine Romance") sound good, one knows they have a severe writing problem. Sadly, this is the death knell of the album in this regard.

And it is not that Ella And Louis Again is a bad album, it is the sense that there is nothing extraordinary here or that is indispensable to the collections and sensibilities of either artist. If "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" and "I Won't Dance" had appeared on the first outing, this one would have been entirely unremarkable and listeners would wonder what the point was. As it is, we are left wondering that, but we recognize how amazing the vocals are and we accept the album for what it is.

For other works by Ella Fitzgerald, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Ella At Duke's Place
Ella Fitzgerald With The Tommy Flanagan Trio
That Old Black Magic
Starlit Hour
Love And Kisses
Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook
Oh, Lady, Be Good! The Best Of The Gershwin Songbook
Pure Ella


See how this album stacks up against others and read reviews of other albums by visiting the Music Review Index page that is organized by album quality!

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