Sunday, March 18, 2012

Some Recognizable Songs, Still The Jerome Kern Songbook Is Not Ella Fitzgerald's Best.

The Good: Decent vocals, Some great lyrics
The Bad: Musically homogenous, Short, Overall blandness.
The Basics: Simple and somewhat uninspired, The Jerome Kern Songbook closes my exploration of the performances of Ella Fitzgerald on something of a downbeat.

As I conclude my monthlong study of the music of Ella Fitzgerald, I find myself feeling like I am at an anticlimax. My February/March Artist Of The Month, Ella Fitzgerald, was not technically an artist, but rather was a performer. Still, I spent the month enjoying her works and looking forward to each new album I experienced. In the process, I found a perfect compilation and several fine albums that I enjoyed quite a bit. My sense of anticlimax, then, comes from ending the reviews with an album that simply did not light up my sky.

The Jerome Kern Songbook has Ella Fitzgerald performing several recognizable songs like "A Fine Romance" and one of my personal favorites, "The Way You Look Tonight." In fact, the latter song is one of my favorite "standards." Performed at the end of my favorite television show of all time, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, by James Darren, who had a recurring role on the show, the song has a strong emotional resonance with me. But when Ella Fitzgerald performed the song on this album it left me feeling largely indifferent. Indeed, my sense after listening to The Jerome Kern Songbook a dozen times now is a state of underwhelming, or rather an underwhelmed state. My experiences with Ella Fitzgerald's works most of this month have generally been a study in consistency with sweeping variations in arrangement. Compilations of Ella Fitzgerald's works tend to be either diverse and wonderful or illustrating a mastery in one style or short and repetitive with very little in between. Unlike any of her other albums that come to mind, The Jerome Kern Songbook features an underutilized, unimpressive incarnation of Fitzgerald's vocalizations that leave the listener indifferent.

With only twelve tracks occupying 42:37 minutes on the compact disc, the first strike against The Jerome Kern Songbook is that it does not utilize anywhere near the full capacity of the compact disc. This is not from lack of material; Jerome Ken published 650 songs according to the liner notes and Fitzgerald recorded more than just these twelve in the course of her lifetime. Fitzgerald appears on each song as the lead vocalist, but just as with every other Ella Fitzgerald recording, she does not write any of the songs, nor play any of the instruments. Norman Granz, her long-time producer, produced the songs.

Fitzgerald is accompanied on this album by Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. This orchestra is primarily a piano and string-driven orchestra with brass accenting the interludes on songs like "You Couldn't Be Cuter." The songs tend to generally be slower, with the strings and piano dominating as they do on "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight." The tempo is picked up for songs like "She Didn't Say Yes," but that song, like many of the songs on the album, tend to use primarily the piano and strings with the strings acting as percussion, which is not uncommon in some classical jazz.

The best way to describe the music on The Jerome Kern Songbook would be "showtunes." All of the songs were actually associated with shows of varying success from "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" coming from the successful "Showboat" to the Broadway flop "Very Warm For May" which yielded "All The Things You Are." There is even a song Kern wrote for an Abbot And Costello film: "Remind Me." While the songs are never too referential that one feels like they are missing something by not knowing the show or context the song was originally performed in, all of the songs have a pretty mellow, musical theater quality to them. One could picture a high school production managing many of the songs on this album.

And therein lies the biggest problem I might conceive with an Ella Fitzgerald album. On The Jerome Kern Songbook, she is fairly restrained, presenting vocals that are less passionate and more mundane than most listeners would likely ever guess. While Fitzgerald is a master vocalist who has the ability to soar from bass to soprano or effortlessly plunge from the highest notes to a soulful depth within a note, little of those vocal abilities unique to (or pioneered by) Fitzgerald are presented on this album. One might argue that that makes some sense; if these songs were from musicals or other productions, no one else could be expected to make such leaps. The problem, then, is that Fitzgerald is not an ideal fit for these compositions. Having heard Fitzgerald's amazing capacity on other albums, it is entirely underwhelming to hear how little of her lung capacity she is required to use on her rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight."

The result is a restrained sounding Ella Fitzgerald and one has to wonder, what is the point of having such wings, if you're not allowed to fly? I have no good answer to that and I am left wondering what drew Fitzgerald to the compositions of Jerome Kern or how no one thought to recompose them for Fitzgerald so they utilize her talents and abilities.

Of course, the obvious answer would have to be Fitzgerald might have simply loved the lyrics of Jerome Kern. There is a lot to recommend Kern's lyrics. The raw emotionalism of Kern is evident on "The Way You Look Tonight" and I found myself quite impressed with "All The Things You Are." On that song, she manages to sound soulful and articulate even if she is a bit restrained while singing "You are the angel glow that lights a star, / The dearest things I know are what you are. / Some day my happy arms will hold you, / And some day I'll know that moment divine, / When all the things you are, are mine" ("All The Things You Are"). Fitzgerald does not make the song her own, but she gives a good turn of it.

Outside not challenging Fitzgerald's range or endurance, The Jerome Kern Songbook seems to utilize little in the way of diction to challenge Fitzgerald as well. Some of my earliest experiences with the music of Ella Fitzgerald had her performing jazz scats and singing complex lines very quickly. So, despite what the liner notes say, it is no surprise to the listener that Fitzgerald may easily manage such lines as "And all this while, you've really been tempting me / Maybe you can tell me what we ought to do / Now that you've got me going, what you gonna do? / Is it up to me? Is it up to you? / What kind of game is this we've begun? / Was it done, just for fun" ("Let's Begin")? The singsong rhymes are well beneath Fitzgerald and this performance is not at all surprising or even terribly impressive.

At least the producers of this album sought to use Fitzgerald for her musical storytelling ability as they do on "She Didn't Say Yes." Fitzgerald is articulate and had a captivating voice for telling musical storysongs and when she narrates "They very soon stood beside his chateau / They lingered like two poor waifs outside / For well she knew `twas only safe outside / In there it was warm, out there it was cold / The sleet and the storm said, 'Better be bold' / She murmured, 'I'm not afraid of ice, / I only wish that I was made of ice'" ("She Didn't Say Yes") she makes it musical, but she sings it in a way that each and every word may be perfectly understood.

Still, it is not enough to save this mediocre album. Those looking for great vocal jazz will be underwhelmed by this album and surprised that Ella Fitzgerald could leave them feeling unimpressed. As one who was so surprised, it's not a great feeling.

The best track is "All The Things You Are," the low point is the unmemorable "I'm Old Fashioned."

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 of all the music reviews I have written!

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