Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Intimate Ella

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.  

   “In 1960 Ella won 2 Grammy Awards for the album Ella in Berlin. She was 42 and at the climax of her career. That year she also released this very different song collection. I recommend it to you as one of the very best of all jazz vocal recordings.
   The album had a strange conception. Ella appeared in an unsuccessful movie entitled, Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Norman Granz decided to record the songs from the film – in which Ella appeared to accompany herself at the piano. For the recording she was backed by her regular pianist, Paul Smith. The mood is indeed “intimate”; the tempos are slow and relaxed. Ella’s voice is beautifully recorded and Paul Smith’s accompaniment is superb.You will never hear a better recording of Matt Dennis’s beautiful song Angel Eyes. My personal favourite is their version of Ray Noble’s lovely song, I Hadn’t Anyone Till You. Whatever the songs, Ella and Paul transform them with performances filled with subtlety and controlled expression. [My copy of The Intimate Ella is Verve CD 839838-2]”
- Peter Batten, Sussex Jazz Magazine April 1, 2018

"There was a kind of naivete about her," Paul Smith said. "She was like a little girl. If she was unhappy she'd pout like an eight-year-old; which in a way she was. I always thought of her as a lady who never quite grew up. She always had that little girl quality about her. Her feelings could be hurt very easily. Ella was a very tender lady. She loved kids. She was kind of like a kid herself, inside.”
- Pianist Paul Smith, Ella’s accompanist for many years, in Tad Hershorn, Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice

“The reader will excuse me, I hope, for going on at such length about the ten years Fitzgerald recorded exclusively for Verve [1956-66], but they contain so much of her best work that her earlier period seems like a mere prelude and her post-Verve years an afterthought. ...Fitzgerald’s interpretations have always been about melodies and harmonies. No other singer depends as much on pure chops as she does. ...There are enough sultry saloon singers and balladeers in this world; we don't need to cry all the time. We need singers like Fitzgerald to remind us that our great songwriters wrote music as well as words. ....”
- Will Friedwald, Jazz Singing

“Ella Fitzgerald is one of a handful of preeminent jazz performers who have become public monuments, emblematic of an unquestioning national pride. She embodies jazz as a positive force even for those who pay no attention to jazz. ... She is often exhilarating (her voice still has much of its girlish purity, stretching over a perfect two-octave midrange, and her rhythms are irresistible), but one attends her performances expecting to be moved less by introspective drama than by the contagiousness of her joy in singing.

In the beginning, no one would have thought to characterize her as, or predict for her the status of, an icon. She was too much the lively young girl, precocious but vulnerable, looking for her little yellow basket.”
- Gary Giddins, First Lady, 1976

“All sorts of people will say they love Ella, but I am one of the ones who had a chance to know her, ever since my sister and 1 were with Tony Pastor's band. Ella was one of the first persons we met with that degree of national prominence. She was always childlike in her trust of people, and she opens up immediately. She is personal; you learn a great deal about her right away. There's no artifice. That warm sound, that perfect vibrato, is a part of her, an extension of her personality. It's engaging and moving, because she's open and childlike. Add to that musicality, and it's an explosion.”
- Rosemary Clooney, vocalist in Leslie Gourse, Celebrating Ella, 1991

“Ella never lost that sweet sixteen thing in her voice, that plaintiveness that was there from the beginning. It's a gift from God. She never lost it ….and she still can outswing anybody.”
- Joe Williams, vocalist in Leslie Gourse, Celebrating Ella, 1991

“There's a maturity and depth in her interpretations now that's better than ever, I think, in her approach to her material and repertoire. There's a new element in Ella that's beautiful to see and hear. That happened to Sass over the years. (Mike worked as Sarah Vaughan's accompanist in 1979 and 1983]. All the great singers, if they have continued over that many decades, become different singers than they were; they get deeper and better, with a touching quality.”
- Mike Wofford, pianist and one of Ella’s accompanists in Leslie Gourse, Celebrating Ella, 1991

Both in the selected quotations above and throughout the Jazz literature in general, the paradox that was Ella Fitzgerald presents itself.

We continually read references to her being naive, having a little girl quality about her and a voice of girlish purity, being a lively young girl, childlike in her trust of people, and that sweet sixteen thing in her voice, while at the same time, we read about the exhilaration she generates through her joy in singing, her superb “chops” [technique], her musicality, her powerful sense of swing, and the maturity and depth of her interpretations.

How best to explain these seemingly contradictory tendencies and qualities?

Perhaps the best way to interpret them is to recognize that like all of us, Ella was all of these things and many more and that, even more importantly, these tendencies and qualities may not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

This complex blend of Ella-isms was recently brought home to me when I discovered a wonderful compilation of classic Jazz vocals on a CD simply entitled - The Intimate Ella - thirteen marvelous tracks with pianist Paul Smith providing the lone support.

I’m aghast to realize, let alone admit, that I missed this one when it first came out. I suppose like many in 1960, I was focused the next “Songbook” LP [she made 8 of them: 7 composers; 1 lyricist; 14 volumes] - Ella’s enduring tribute albums to the great composers and lyricist who are usually referred to under the catchall phrase - The Great American Songbook - let alone completely blown away by the Ella in Berlin recording that won a Grammy that same year.

The German producer, Imme Schade van Westrum, describes how this exquisite recording came about in the following insert notes to the CD:

"I had never realised just how good our songs really were until I heard them sung by Ella Fitzgerald", said Ira Gershwin. Bing Crosby concluded that "man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest", while Duke Ellington ranked her "beyond category". For the rest of her millions of fans she is the "First lady of song".

Ella Fitzgerald is not only one of the most acclaimed vocalists of the twentieth century but, thanks to her producer, manager and inspirer Norman Granz, also the best recorded artist in the whole history of jazz. From all her periods and moods (from the band years with Chick Webb and the classical song books to the mature chamber jazz with Joe Pass) the highlights have been carefully recorded and released on LP and the majority also on compact disc. Ella Fitzgerald's works are here to stay, like a Beethoven symphony or a Rembrandt painting in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum.

And just as with Beethoven and Rembrandt, so with Ella Fitzgerald, new masterpieces are constantly being discovered or rediscovered. It is the case with the 13 songs on this compact disc. Although they were released in 1960 under the title "Ella Fitzgerald sings songs from the soundtrack of 'Let no man write my epitaph'", in terms of publicity and attention this Ella Fitzgerald recording was soon forgotten, for the movie flopped and anyway, the year 1960 was completely dominated by "Ella in Berlin", with no fewer than two Grammy awards. It was the legendary live recording in which Ella forgot the words to "Mack the knife" and substituted these with one of her most beautiful scats. Although these improvisations contrast deeply with the quiet songs from "Let no man write my epitaph" there is a common denominator: Paul Smith the pianist. In this somewhat bizarre film about corruption and drug addicts we see and hear Ella Fitzgerald (alongside Burl Ives, Shelley Winters and Jean Seberg) sing the songs while giving the impression that she accompanies herself on the piano. In reality it is Cliff Smalls who plays the piano parts on the soundtrack.

For this recording the songs were sung again but this time with Paul Smith at the piano. Both Ella Fitzgerald and Paul Smith sound exceptionally subdued and in some places even melancholic. There are obvious similarities with Ella's earlier Gershwin recordings with Ellis Larkins at the piano and her more recent duets with guitarist Joe Pass. We hear a subdued "ballad" singer - Fitzgerald was 42 in 1960 - whose voice and interpretation pleased millions. She was at the height of her career. This rediscovered disc not only throws a new light on Ella's enormous oeuvre but also enriches and expands it, especially because these performances are among the most intimate that the First Lady of Song ever recorded. - Imme Schade van Westrum.”

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