Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Intimate Ella Is Largely “The Indistinct Ella” On This Disappointing C.D.

The Good: Voice, A few lyrics
The Bad: SHORT, Musically and vocally monotonous
The Basics: While Ella Fitzgerald might be a master of tone and note control, The Intimate Ella presents only that, making for an unfortunate, monolithic listening experience.

As February races toward a close and I consider my Artist Of The Month, Ella Fitzgerald, I find myself overcome with mixed feelings. I know that whenever I hear Fitzgerald on PBS, I will actually have some appreciation for her talents. Moreover, I know I made some good recommendations on her recordings because I have listened to so many of her performances the past few weeks I have a pretty strong concept of which recordings were some of her best and which were just cheap compilations.

Unfortunately, The Intimate Ella is such a slow, dull musical outing that it falls closer to the latter than the former. However, this is not a compilation album; this is the c.d. version of the near-impossible to find soundtrack "Let No Man Write My Epitaph" (according to the liner notes). But given the preponderance of great collections out on the market and the diversity of Fitzgerald albums that exists, The Intimate Ella is just too monotonous and boring to recommend. Yes, this is the narcoleptic Ella and between being track after track the same, soft piano tracks without any variety, the album is much more likely to put the listener to sleep than engage them (it nearly killed my mother and I on a recent trip when I was driving at night!). And while this has some predictably amazing vocals by Ella Fitzgerald, the album is dull and sleepy and there are actually moments Fitzgerald sounds bored with it herself.

With only thirteen songs utilizing 42:32 minutes of space, The Intimate Ella is hardly a powerhouse using the capacity of the compact disc medium. Instead, this is a collection of songs that lack scope and the c.d. lacks it as well, making it even more tiresome upon replaying. As always, Ella Fitzgerald appears as the vocalist on the album, performing songs that were written by others. She is accompanied on this album by a lone pianist and she did not play her own piano, despite the way the piano and her voice play off one another perfectly. Her long-time producer, Norman Granz, produced the album, so Fitzgerald has very little creative control over what appears on this recording.

What the album does have more than many of Fitzgerald's albums is a wide array of writers. As a soundtrack, this album was packed with songs by talented writers and very few appear as writers for more than one track. The problem, though, is that they are all writing for the same gestalt and the result is that Fitzgerald is not given a great deal to work with to show off her talents. Moreover, the whole "one woman in the spotlight before a lone piano" sound wears out quickly and this becomes a collection of songs that sound more tired than audacious, presented in a tiring form.

For The Intimate Ella the uniformity of the tracks is a severe liability. This is a melancholy album and while one might consider something like this for accompanying a candlelit dinner, this music is more likely to put the diners in a haze and put them to sleep rather than get them feeling sensual.

This I blame those constructing the album for. Ella Fitzgerald has an amazing voice and on The Intimate Ella, she is presented as a professional, consistent soprano. In fact, it is only on the final track, "Reach For Tomorrow" that Fitzgerald exhibits real range. She goes low, she ends high, but she goes through her entire three-octave range on the song, making it instantly worthwhile. While the album begins with her singing lower on "Black Coffee," she stays low and sultry through most of it. The other songs, she is simply high and perfect-pitched. But because all of the songs are slow and melodic, this becomes quite boring to listen to, even for lovers of vocal jazz.

One aspect of Fitzgerald's vocals I have not addressed before that is worth noting - because it is displayed in a superlative fashion on The Intimate Ella - is Fitzgerald's vocal control. She is amazing at holding notes and on every song on this album, he holds notes with perfect pitch that most performers cannot hold even for a moment. The thing is, Fitzgerald is melodic and can string together long phrases where she is drawing out notes in a harmonic and hypnotic way and this album displays that incredible talent on every track.

This, unfortunately, is one of the drawbacks of the album as well. While the sound of songs like "Angel Eyes" is instantly impressive where Fitzgerald presents long, held notes, when the album quickly becomes an album where every song on it is doing only that, the listener tunes out; it becomes an unfortunate white noise. There are no quick bits on the album, not even one journey up or down the scales and the contemplative, slow quality to it makes it sound more mundane - especially upon repetition of the album - than extraordinary.

As well, because all of the notes are high and slow, some of the lyrics are rendered less articulate or clear than the ought to be. It took three listens before I actually heard the title line "I Cried For You" in that song because of how the song was presented! There are few songs on this album where the the lines are clear and Fitzgerald actually enunciates. Instead, most of the album flows together as an indistinct auditory sludge that sounds wonderful, but means little.

This is unfortunate, because some of the poetry is actually quite worthwhile, if not extraordinary! Having heard a few renditions of many of the songs, I have certainly heard more articulate versions of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," but I've not heard any that have such raw soul as on The Intimate Ella. I can only imagine how much more powerful the song would actually be if one could understand her when she sang "I can't give you anything but love, baby. / That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby. / Dream a while. Scheme a while. / We're sure to find, / Happiness, and I guess / All those things you've always pined for" ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby"). I fail to understand why anyone would want such articulate lines obscured.

Of course, on this album that vocalization sometimes works perfectly to create the intended mood. The lines "When you're sad / It makes me feel the same as you... / Come to me my melancholy baby / Cuddle up and don't be blue / All your fears are foolish fancy, maybe / You know, dear, that I'm in love with you . . ." ("My Melancholy Baby") truly reach their full expressiveness with her slow, sad presentation of them. Fitzgerald might be presenting the words of artists who write for her, but she does it quite well for most of the album. Again, one wonders why those making the soundtrack wanted her to drag the lines out in such a way that they are often almost indecipherable.

And some of the lyrics are not particularly extraordinary. "September Song" is fairly repetitive and its uncomplicated rhymes of "Oh, it's a long, long time from May to December /
But the days grow short when you reach September / When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame / One hasn't got time for the waiting game / Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few / September, November / And these few precious days I'll spend with you / These precious days I'll spend with you" make the listener tire from it fairly quickly.

As a result, The Intimate Ella comes across as one of her less sophisticated albums, despite possessing the trademark voice and the clear ability that makes her a master at her craft.

The best track is "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby," the rest of the album pretty much flows indistinctly together.

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
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
Pure Ella
Flying Home


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

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