Downbeat annually does its readers the service of reviewing suggested books, recordings and photography compilations that would make wonderful gifts-of-the-season for family and friends.
This year there are a number recommendations that are so special that I wanted to make it a point to bring them to your attention in the event that you don’t take the magazine. I will do this in successive postings on Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Lucky Thompson and Jean-Pierre Leloir.
An additional benefit are the well-written annotations that accompany these gift suggestions by some of Downbeat’s fine writers.
Let’s begin with the recommendations for”Pops” or, if you must, Louis Armstrong, and “Mama Jazz,” the adoring nickname her Italian fans have given to the one-and-only Ella Fitzgerald.
“Glorious Gifts for Ella’s Centennial” - John McDonough
“Every fall, record labels release lavish, extravagant box sets that few of us would buy for ourselves but that cause us to make imperial proclamations of our generosity toward others during the holidays. If you feel generous and wish to emphasize your own good taste as well, check out the lineup below. Why? Because very few Baby Boomers — or their offspring and maybe even their offspring — would not delight in getting a new Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong collection this holiday season. The gift of Ella's music is a fine way to salute the immortal "First Lady of Song" as her centennial year comes to a close.
In hindsight, it's surprising that Fitzgerald (1917-'96) didn't collaborate with Armstrong (1901-'71) sooner in her career. You'd think they would have found each other quickly. Each had recorded for Decca for a full decade, but their paths didn't cross until January 1946. It might have been the beginning of a productive musical friendship, except that their first session together would be Armstrong's last for Decca for three-and-a-half years. That accounts for the cutoff date on The Complete Decca Singles 1935-1946 (Verve Records/UMe; ume. Ink.to/louiscompletedecca), a digital-only compilation of 136 titles covering Armstrong's most commercially diverse decade, the one that climaxed with his first duet with Fitzgerald.
Armstrong was commercial in a way that fit the Decca model. He was a self-governing sovereign with few musical loyalties. A bandleader in name only, he readily transplanted himself from Luis Russell (his working band) to Jimmy Dorsey to Glen Gray to the Mills Bros, to Lyn Murray — yes, even to Andy lona and his Islanders. (Just imagine Duke Ellington moonlighting with Glenn Miller at Victor or Count Basie with Ish Kabibble at Columbia.)
But Armstrong could breeze through any genre and always be Louis. This collection finds him covering all bases, from humdrum song selections to 18 well-polished re-creations of earlier classics (e.g., "West End Blues"). But this period also generated fresh Armstrong classics that now have permanent pedestals in the canon: "Struttin’ With Some Barbecue," "Swing That Music," "Jubilee" and more, all of which catch the sound of his trumpet at its mature height.
If you'd prefer to wrap an actual box to put under the Christmas tree (rather than a digital gift), the procession begins with the four-disc set Ella Fitzgerald And Louis Armstrong-Cheek To Cheek: The Complete Duets (Verve Records/UMe; us.udiscovermusic.com or Amazon). This is most comprehensive Ella-Louis scrapbook ever compiled. With the Decca and Verve catalogs now siblings under the extended Universal Music parent company, all things are possible.
Still, the old contrasts are striking. Decca was trolling for a hit single in the novelty market, while Verve couldn't have cared less. So the first Verve Ella And Louis album startled us with Armstrong's voice and horn presented in a way no one had ever heard before - close-up and cozy. His rusty growl exposed, almost naked and without camouflage or the All-Stars.
Verve executive Norman Granz amplified the intimacy by using only the Oscar Peterson trio with Buddy Rich and 11 leisurely ballads, most new to him. Granz told them to take their time, and they did. For Ella, it was home. For Louis, whose trumpet is laid-back and close to the texts, it was a breakthrough to the core of his artistry. A year later, Ella And Louis Again was recorded in three sessions. It captures the same pillow-talk intimacy, but with a wider range of tempos. "Stompin' At The Savoy" seems to combust spontaneously. All the tune sequences here follow the original LPs.
Five days later they began their magnum opus, the deluxe two-LP Porgy And Bess. If the first duets achieved warmth, this one aimed for grandeur. Russ Garcia's orchestrations swell and shrink with a theatrical flamboyance. Armstrong's horn, soft-spoken before, has as a concert-hall stateliness, though sometimes uncertain of the new terrain. Of the 17 songs only four are actually performed as duets. But among the many Porgy and Bess treatments, this one remains a unique achievement—a splendid rivalry between Gershwin's operatic aspirations and the sui generis imprints of Ella and Louis at their best.
The surprises come on the fourth disc, which gives us a peek into both the fun and frustration of the creative process. Armstrong moves through eight takes on "Bess, Oh Where's My Bess" without nailing it. The issued version ended up being an overdub Louis recorded several months later. There are also several trumpet rehearsals of a piece called "Red Headed Woman," which is not listed in any Armstrong discography. It is actually the instrumental section interpolated into "There's A Boat That's Leavin' Soon For New York."
The crown jewel this season is the six-LP set Ella Fitzgerald Sings The George And Ira Gershwin Song Books (Verve/UMe). Michelangelo carved his monuments in stone. Granz used vinyl. And when he considered something of particular value, he draped it in a luxurious wardrobe of packaging, lest no one misunderstand its consequence.
The Fitzgerald-Gershwin project was perhaps Granz's most enduring achievement. It was an authentic work of art. Uncluttered by commercial intent, the cover art announced itself without a syllable of copy, only a bold French Impressionist face and the imposing signature of Bernard Buffet. Universal has now restored this masterpiece to its original vinyl magnificence and physical presence. Holding one of the shiny, 12-inch discs is like cradling a specimen of Dresden porcelain. Even those without a turntable may covet this limited edition for the sheer privilege of exhibiting an objet d'art. Those who do have one can experience the 53 original recordings with Nelson Riddle as Granz intended, plus a sixth LP of bonus items previously issued on The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books in 1993.
With the Fitzgerald centennial winding down. Universal and others have been busy with smaller monuments as well. Two live discoveries are notable. Ella At Zardi's (Verve/ UMe) will likely create a similar buzz to the singer's Twelve Nights In Hollywood set from 2009. It captures two sets from the night of Feb. 2, 1956, just after the formation of Verve and just before the Cole Porter songbook work began. Timing alone makes it a career landmark, and "Airmail Special," "Bernie's Tune" and a slow "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" add to the musical surprises. She sings "I've Got A Crush On You" to Riddle, who was in the audience.
More for the hardcore fan is Ella Fitzgerald: Live At Chautauqua, Vol. 2 (Dot Time Records; dottimerecords.com), a previously unreleased concert recording made in 1968 at Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater in New York state. The 46-minute set concludes with a historically important tune, "He Had A Dream," a moving tribute to Martin Luther King. (This album, part of Dot Time Records' Legends Series, is a companion to Live At Chautauqua, Vol. I, which was released in 2015.)
For those who prefer a one-stop overview of at least two-thirds of her career, the four-disc set Ella Fitzgerald, 100 Songs For A Centennial (Verve/UMe) provides a 50/50 mix from the Decca and Verve periods that highlights the contrasts between sales-driven Decca years and the high-art plateaus Fitzgerald reached on Verve — although the work she did with pianist Ellis Larkins in 1950 is as complete as anything she produced under Granz.
One of those pieces is part of Someone To Watch Over Me (Verve/UMe), in which several of her more small-scale combo works from the Decca and Verve years are augmented by newly recorded London Symphony Orchestra accompaniments. The original sparse backing leaves plenty of room for the orchestrations to breathe without tripping into any background bottlenecks. Thanks to the magic of digital recording technology, Gregory Porter joins Fitzgerald and Larkins on their 1954 rendition of "People Will Say We're In Love."