Friday, February 17, 2012

My February Artist Of The Month Continues Strong When Ella Fitzgerald Shine-s!

The Good: Great voice, Interesting music, Good mix
The Bad: SHORT!
The Basics: As I move into the works of Ella Fitzgerald, I am pleased by her vocal abilities and the creativity of her song choices on Shine.

Have you ever heard the phrase "usually your first experience with a new artist defines how the rest of your experience with them will go?" Or something more to the effect of "if you like the first thing you hear from an artist, it's likely to be your favorite?" When I chose Ella Fitzgerald as my February Artist Of The Month, part of my thought was that she made an ideal artist for Black History Month and another thought was that she had a wealth of material to call from. Moreover, reviewing her works would allow me to truly expand my knowledge of American music, in this case by listening to a lot of classical jazz and seeing what I thought about it. (It is worth noting for my regular readers that this was intended to be my first review of Ella Fitzgerald's works.)

To that end, my first barrage of Ella Fitzgerald albums are actually a series of compilation albums - I think! - and many of them have several of the same songs on them. Knowing that most of them are not going to pass my muster, I thought it would be good to start with the one I am enjoying most, which is ironically the first Ella Fitzgerald album I heard. That album was Shine and it immediately established for me a strong sense of appreciation for the abilities of Ella Fitzgerald.

With only ten songs, clocking out at 30:05, Shine is a great collection of songs performed by Ella Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, Ella Fitzgerald is a jazz vocalist and a performer as opposed to an artist, though her vocals are amazing. The problematic aspect for reviewing Ella Fitzgerald by my rigorous standards is that Fitzgerald is not so much an artist outside her vocalizations and as a result, she has very little of herself behind her albums. So, with Shine, Ella Fitzgerald does not write any of the songs, play any of the instruments or produce the album or its songs in any way. All Ella Fitzgerald does is perform.

This is no small feat, performing as Fitzgerald does. Widely known for her exceptional vocal range, Fitzgerald is exceptional on Shine. Starting with "Mr. Paganini," she soars up and down the scales effortlessly from bass up through soprano, though she keeps most of her vocals in the mid-range. The exceptional aspect of Fitzgerald's jazz vocalizations outside her exceptional range has to be her expressiveness (she makes buying gum a playful experience on "Chewin' Gum"), ability to sing quickly and articulately ("A Tisket, A Tasket") and her ability to captivate with a real sense of musical storytelling (Shine).

For those not inclined to jazz (and I am one of those people generally), the reason the album Shine is a great entre into the genre is that this album illustrates some great range and diversity. So, for example, Fitzgerald goes deep and throaty on tracks like "Basin Street Blues" and she does some classic jazz scatting on that track, "Flying Home" and "Mr. Paganini." As well, on several of the tracks, Fitzgerald takes a vocal risk by either putting a rest in a beat pattern that breaks it up or she hits what is apparently a wrong note while ascending or descending a scale - as she does on this version of "Mr. Paganini." But even though the ear tells us that it is the wrong note, it works; it is musical and interesting to hear at the very least.

As a lover of folk music, I found myself most impressed by the way Ella Fitzgerald sings musical storysongs on this album. Take, for example, "Mr. Paganini." On that song, Fitzgerald enchants the listener with her storytelling "The concert was over in Carnegie Hall / The maestro took bow after bow / He said, 'My dear friends I have given my all / I'm sorry, it's all over now' / When from the balcony way up high / There suddenly came a mournful cry / Oh, Mr. Paganini, please play my rhapsody / And if you cannot play it, won't you sing it? / And if you can't sing you'll simply have to. . ." ("Mr. Paganini"). Fitzgerald uses her voice and when she scats at the end of that line, it is actually a wonderful interpolation of the raw desire the rest of the lines have set the listener up for.

The amusing thing for me as a historian, as well, is how jazz of this early era made music out of mundane daily events. This happens when Fitzgerald uses a singsong series of lines to recount "My mama gave me a penny / To buy some candy / I didn't want the candy / So I bought some chewin' gum / (Oh, yum, yum, yum) / I love my gum / My mama gave me a nickel / To buy a pickle / I didn't want a pickle / So I bought some chewin' gum / (Oh, yum, yum, yum) / I bought some gum" ("Chewin' Gum"). That Fitzgerald can make it musical to be obsessed with gum might well amuse listeners today, but there is no denying that she presents the song with as earnest a quality as she does singing about her joy on "Holiday In Harlem."

Wisely, the people at Laserlight who created this compilation were sure to put in some enduring and universal songs. Arguably, the most accessible would be "I Got A Guy." Fitzgerald has few outright love songs on this album, but there is no denying the love with lines like "I got a guy / He don't dress me in sable / He looks nothing like Gable / But he's mine / And I think he's too divine / I got a guy / When he starts into pet me / He's the sauce on spaghetti / He's the kind that you can't keep off you mind" ("I Got A Guy"). In this way, Fitzgerald is more than just an exceptional performer of her time, she has something universal to sing to us now.

What might be a tougher sell to some listeners is the instrumentation that accompanies Ella Fitzgerald on Shine. All of the tracks, without fail, have a swinging big band jazz sound. There is a lot of brass and while it opens with a fanfare and piano, most of the songs use trumpets and such to create a sound that is toe-tapping and somewhat energetic. There is a decent use of clarinet on tracks like Shine and that type of instrumentation may be too different for some, though certainly not those who love jazz.

As one just getting into jazz, what is perhaps most disappointing about this particular recording is that it is so short. It leaves the listener wanting to hear more, but it is a poor use of the c.d. medium; one could stick at least two Ella Fitzgerald albums on a single disc and still have space left over. But what is here is so good, it is impossible not to recommend it.

The best track is "Mr. Paganini," the low point is the unmemorable "Flying Home."

For other works by Ella Fitzgerald, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Ella And Louis
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


Want to see how this album stacks up against other musical works I have reviewed? Be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page where the reviews are organized by rating, best work to worst, by clicking here!

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