Monday, February 6, 2012

A Wonderful Mix, Pure Ella Is Still Not Quite "The Very Best Of Ella Fitzgerald."

The Good: Some amazing vocals, A decent mix of songs, Decent duration
The Bad: Some of the recordings are not the best versions of the songs.
The Basics: A worthwhile Ella Fitzgerald album, Pure Ella is a great, but not perfect or even the best compilation of her performances.

Anyone can throw around the phrase "The Very Best Of [Insert Artist's Name Here]" on an album, but when it comes to performer Ella Fitzgerald, to make such a claim is to throw down a ridiculous gauntlet. With an audio library as massive as that of Ella Fitzgerald, one suspects the fine folks at Verve were banking on few (if any) people listening to as much of the Ella Fitzgerald library as they could get their hands on. But as Ella Fitzgerald is my February Artist Of The Month, I have been listening to obscene amounts of Ella! The result is that I have heard a lot of great Ella Fitzgerald recordings now, as well as some of the lesser ones.

I mention this as prelude to my review of Pure Ella, because tucked away on the spine is the assertion The Very Best Of Ella Fitzgerald. And when the album began, I was fully prepared to accept Pure Ella as the ultimate compilation, if there had to be a single disc of Ella Fitzgerald works that was to be an ultimate compilation. I was heartened, for example, to see that the version of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" was the one originally recorded as a duet between Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Ella And Louis. Culling from various sources seemed like it might well create the best mix possible for the listener. Unfortunately, I am able to say with some authority that while the song choices on Pure Ella represent a perfect collection of songs that bring out Fitzgerald's musical and articulation abilities, some of the specific recordings are not her best performances of them. So, for example, both "A Tisket, A Tasket" and "You'll Have To Swing It (Mr. Paganini)" were culled from "Compact Jazz" and include the sounds of the audience annoyingly applauding throughout. Especially on "Mr. Paganini," I have heard better recordings, which is especially notable because it was one of the first songs I heard Ella Fitzgerald do jazz scatting on and impress me with it!

Still, with eighteen songs packing the disc with 72:18 worth of music, Pure Ella is an amazing compilation of some of the best recordings Ella Fitzgerald and her producers ever produced. Fitzgerald was, by definition, a performer who did not write her own material or present any instrumental performances. Her instrument was her voice and it was quite amazing. Even though this album does not contain my favorite version of "You'll Have To Swing It (Mr. Paganini)," Fitzgerald's voice in the last half of it is exceptional as it articulately soars and rings out clearly with a grace almost no performer or artist ever achieves.

The songs on Pure Ella are culled from productions that were written by some impressive talents. Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, and Cole Porter all wrote songs that Fitzgerald performs on this album. I was surprised to find none of Duke Ellington's songs made it onto this album, but Pure Ella does not feel like it is missing anything from that omission. All of the tracks were produced by Fitzgerald's long-time producer Norman Granz and Granz seemed to have a great ear for combining Fitzgerald's voice with the instrumentals in such a way that the instrumentals (almost) never overrun her vocals. On this album, he is respectful to keep her voice as the primary musical instrument.

The other instruments on this album are played by a variety of performers, but the collection is largely a jazz orchestra backing sound. As a result, most of the songs accompany Fitzgerald on piano with minimal brass. Still, some of the tracks do have light jazz woodwinds establishing a melody ("Love Is Here To Stay") when Fitzgerald is not singing. And, of course, Louis Armstrong plays his trumpet on "Summertime" and (uncredited) "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Generally, the tracks are slower and more smoky jazz, though Fitzgerald presents a fairly upbeat version of "Night And Day" and she seems to have some real fun with vocalizing "The Boy From Ipanema." She does a heartbreaking rendition of "Over The Rainbow" and it is hard not to fall silent and attentive to her presentation of it.

Fitzgerald is a captivating musical performer and Pure Ella portrays that fairly well. Fitzgerald is known for having domination over a full three octaves and she has an ability to leap from her lowest to her highest within a note. This is an extraordinary talent (for comparison, those who have grown up on current performers might note that while Mariah Carey can go quite high on her songs, this almost always requires her to go up a scale to get there) and one that has not been replicated by any other musical artist or performer since with any consistency or grace.

Part of what makes Pure Ella such a decent compilation is the quality of the lyrics. "The Boy From Ipanema" requires Fitzgerald to sing both fast and articulately and she nails ever syllable of the song, making it sound effortless. Similarly, even though "How High The Moon" might not be my favorite song, it is hard to argue with the way she combines her jazz scatting with the lines "Somewhere there's heaven / It's where you are / Somewhere there's music / How near, how far / The darkest night would shine / If you would come to me soon / Until you will, how still my heart / How high the moon" ("How High The Moon"). Fitzgerald has the ability to transform the inane into the extraordinary (or at the very least, tolerable!).

Even better is how Ella Fitzgerald uses her voice to bring out the raw potential emotion of words in songs. She takes the potential of the lines "Time and again I've longed for adventure, / Something to make my heart beat the faster. / What did I long for? I never really knew. / Finding your love I've found my adventure, / Touching your hand, my heart beats the faster, / All that I want in all of this world is you" ("All The Things You Are") and actualizes them to passionate emotions. Indeed, Fitzgerald's vocals transform words into instantly recognizable feelings that anyone who has been in love or experienced loss may understand perfectly. She helps define what it means to be a singer the listener may empathize with!

Even with all of my current immersion in the works of Ella Fitzgerald, there were still some songs on this that were new to me. As a result, I came to appreciate the soulful way Fitzgerald performed "Misty" with just a piano accompanying her. This is another passionate song where Fitzgerald is able to emote exceptionally across her full vocal range when she sings "Walk my way, / And a thousand violins begin to play, / Or it might be the sound of your hello, / That music I hear, / I get misty, the moment you're near. / Can't you see that you're leading me on? / And it's just what I want you to do, / Don't you notice how hopelessly I'm lost / That's why I'm following you" ("Misty"). Ella Fitzgerald may only be a performer, but it is songs like "Misty" that remind the cynics like me just how much a performer can be!

And Pure Ella is a worthwhile album for anyone considering getting into the works of Ella Fitzgerald, but it is not the very best album - or even compilation - of her performances I have yet heard. Still, it will be enough for almost anyone who wants to see what all the fuss about Ella Fitzgerald is all about. In that way, it truly is a Pure Ella experience!

The best track is "Over The Rainbow," the low point is the less memorable "Tea For Two."

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
Day Dream: Best Of The Duke Ellington Songbook
Oh, Lady, Be Good! The Best Of The Gershwin Songbook


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the albums I have reviewed!

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