Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ella Fitzgerald Might Be Celebrated, But This Is Not A Perfect Mix.

The Good: Great vocals, Some decent songs that illustrate Ella Fitzgerald's capacity well.
The Bad: A few seriously dated tracks, Short.
The Basics: Ella Fitzgerald Celebrated is a good mix of Ella Fitzgerald vocals within the swing/big band jazz tradition that have some great and frighteningly dated songs!

Despite my usual complaint about Ella Fitzgerald albums that tend to have a musically monotonous sound, there is something to be said about albums that capture all of one style or era of jazz in Fitzgerald's performances. There is some irony, then, to my finding Ella Fitzgerald Celebrated after I did not like some of the specific recordings used on Pure Ella. In the case of Celebrated, I discovered a collection that had some great versions of classic recordings like "A-Tisket A-Tasket" and "Shine." However, the album also includes some terribly dated songs that are neither the best vocal examples of Ella Fitzgerald's works nor the most compelling examples of anything other than dated notions of other peoples of the world ("Sing Song Swing").

In general, though, Celebrated is a collection of big band swing jazz style songs performed by Ella Fitzgerald and they are a decent collection of that style of jazz sensibility. Those who like that sound will find much to enjoy on Celebrated, despite the fact that some of the instrumental interludes - which have nothing to do with the talents or genius of Ella Fitzgerald - are excessive. For example, "I'll Chase The Blues Away" has a long coda after Fitzgerald's singing ends and on the under-three minute song "T'Ain't What You Do," Fitzgerald does not begin singing for over a full minute! This, combined with the repetitive nature of the lyrics, leaves the listener with the impression the song does not have enough to actually justify is existence; it is barely saying anything and its lack of duration supports that notion.

With sixteen songs taking up 46:07, Celebrated is hardly the most robust use of the compact disc medium. As always, Ella Fitzgerald performs works written by others, so while she has amazing vocals, she is singing lyrics written by professional writers. Furthermore, she does not play any instruments, nor was she involved in the production end of any of the tracks (as far as engineering, etc. goes). Magnum Music, which produced this album, culled the sixteen songs from several sources and as a result, various recording companies had their hand in the production of the individual tracks. It is somewhat surprising, then, that the songs have such a unified sound. That said, the quality of some of the recordings is less-than-pristine, many of which must have been remastered from mono to stereo performances. Still, most have a swing jazz sound to them and if one is truly celebrating Ella Fitzgerald, to limit the recording to only that sound is not doing justice to her!

That said, Ella Fitzgerald Celebrated has a wonderful collection of tracks featuring the vocals of Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, best known for amazing vocals that seem to effortlessly span three octaves of tones, illustrates that incredible talent by going from bass to soprano on songs like "A-Tisket A-Tasket," "Shine" and "Sugar Blues." And when she stays safely within one tonal range, she is still able to impress listeners, as she does with the speed of her delivery on "Chew Chew Chew." It is hard to argue the status of Ella Fitzgerald as legendary performer with vocals like those that she presents on "Crying My Heart Out For You."

It is arguable that Ella Fitzgerald can make anything sound good, but on Celebrated, she certainly makes a powerful argument for that idea! For example, Fitzgerald becomes the consummate musical storyteller on songs like "Shine," reminding listeners of the emphasis on "musical" in such labels when she sings "Just because I always wear a smile, / Likes to dress up in the latest style. / Just because I'm glad I'm livin', / Takes trouble smilin', never whine. / Just because my color's shady, / slightly different maybe that's why they call me shine." Fitzgerald lays out an empathetic musical protagonist with her articulate vocals that make the listener care about the predicament of her protagonist. Even with the trumpets and pianos accompanying her, Fitzgerald's voice resonates above all else and presents the story clearly and in an intriguing fashion.

Unfortunately, Celebrated includes some songs that have Fitzgerald singing singsong rhymes that - even being part of an early jazz tradition - are problematic for their predictability and obviousness. Fitzgerald has some difficulty creating credible coherency out of lines like "He's not much for looks / And no hero out of books, / Is my man. / Two or three girls has he / That he likes as well as me, / But I love him" ("My Man") arguably because the rhymes are so simple as to be little more than nursery rhyme beats. Fitzgerald deserves a repertoire that represents emotional depth as well as vocal range and Celebrated, unfortunately, does not always portray that.

As well, this album has some seriously dated songs on it that are problematic to listen to now. "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" has a musical protagonist whose lover is referred to as "daddy" and while that is a cultural concept that has held even into today's rap culture, there is something disturbing about mixing nicknames for lovers with family. In the interest of full disclosure, I also find it bothersome when spouses refer to their partner as "mom" or "dad" for the benefit of the children. But the way Fitzgerald sings about loving "Daddy" in that song is just tinged with an undercurrent of gross.

But none of the songs are as problematic as "Sing Song Swing" which is dated in its most kind interpretation, flat-out racist in the worst evaluation of it. Indeed, there is something offensive about Fitzgerald taking on a mock-Chinese accent and singing "With a ting-a-ling on the ding dong ding / Makee plenty sing song swing / Choppity chop chop, chop chopsticks / Choppity chop chop, chop till six / Choppity chop chop, chops the thing /When Charlie Chingee make his sing song swing" ("Sing Song Swing"). The only thing that saves this song from something more harsh in terms of evaluating it - in addition to the idea that it was likely performed over fifty years ago - is that randomly strung together words like "foo young foo" and "makee doodle-do" make the song much more nonsensical than serious. Still, it is pretty offensive by today's standards and given that Celebrated was compilated and released relatively recently its inclusion is problematic.

This is not to say that songs like "Sing Song Swing" ought not to be preserved, but celebrating it as opposed to keeping it more in a context of a historical document is bothersome. Just like there is a difference between preserving photographs or films of old minstrel shows might have some historical value, it would be something else entirely to play those videos or show those pictures as part of a 2009 entertainment portfolio.

Still, this is not enough to keep one from Celebrated, though the musical monotony of the trumpet and brass-driven tracks on the album are likely to make one tire of it quicker than some of Fitzgerald's other compilations. Despite its faults, it is an overall decent mix and one worth a listen by those looking to hear a diverse and great array of Fitzgerald's works. But for the buy . . . that's a much tougher sell.

The best track is "A-Tisket A-Tasket," the low point is "Sing Song Swing."

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
The Intimate Ella
Ella And Louis Again
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
The Best Of The Songbooks
Pure Ella
Flying Home


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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