Due to her grotesquely large discography, I’ve limited it (to say the least) to her Decca Records recordings (some of them), a best-of Verve Records compilation (one of them) and a greatest hits record (one of them). I wouldn’t take the grades as seriously as other posts as I chose the incorrect records to judge and left out all of her famous collaborations with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter, to name a few.
Ella Sings Gershwin (1950)
Ella Fitzgerald brings us the serenity of George and Ira Gershwin with her voice and a muffled, plodding piano. This is her first solo record (probably not) but she had buckets of experience behind her with her band Ella and Her Famous Orchestra and numerous jazz collaborations. This debut of the Decca recordings lacks oomph but her girly charms are always infectious – “I am just a little girl/Who’s looking for a little boy”.
Due to her tough upbringing, she can’t be without the odd dark one, even if it does sound as peacefully tranquil as the last number (“But Not For Me”), and the injection of a more vibrant piano in spots brings out that glorious voice in “Looking For a Boy”, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Soon”. “The world will pardon my mush/’Cause I’ve got a crush, my baby on you”, lovely stuff.
Well, she was never one to hold back – “The day you’re mine this world will be in tune/Let’s make that day come soon” – Let’s, Ella, let’s.
Songs in a Mellow Mood (1954)
Oh I’m glad there’s you, Ella. A more playful, brighter, positive outlook, and could she exhibit much more cheek or audacity? – “That’s what you get folks, for makin’ whoopee!”
All the songs sound the same, which doesn’t bother me much, and the previously muffled Ellis Larkins piano now sounds like it belongs alongside that flowing Fitzgerald tone. “The melody haunts my reverie”, “Yes my heart belongs to daddy” I find playfully and fittingly ironic with her jazzy, melodic gift and her arduous youth, respectively, but what else can she do?
Again, none of the songs are hers, which shouldn’t bother me much, and doesn’t, because that tone and pure technicality keeps me warm and holds the potential boredom and monotony at bay.
Lullabies of Birdland (1955)
Now the full fruits of her fruity voice are in the ascendancy with glossier production and songs recorded from the mid-’40s to mid-’50s. The first sonic appreciation of her iconic “scat singing” will erratically take over your eardrums with “Rough Ridin'”; hilariously brilliant and effortlessly ridiculous.
“Smooth Sailing” is most certainly that, with the addition of backing vocalists, but the unusual scatting kicks in which smothers the early likeability of the track, not in an adverse sense, however. With the injection of orchestras to liven up the selfsame piano drone of the previous albums, I can’t help but think how much they enhance her vocal gift, as if she needed it, but it feels more lively, more fun, more what she wants. It feels comfortable, even in its Tourette’s-like vocal shifts from wordsmith to horn-like palpitations.
“We’ll take a boat to the land of dreams/Steam down the river, down to New Orleans”, I like that line (yes I know, it’s not hers), and that glorious nod to Louis Armstrong in “Basin Street Blues” would bring a smile to any dried, defeatist’s face.
For Sentimental Reasons (1955)
Well, we’re back to the positively forlorn voice with some initial backing barbershop blues, but none of the scathing scat.
Although we’re travelling back to some recordings before Lullabies, I still want my upbeat, jazzy inclinations and cheerful, weird eroticism. “A tiger’s not a tiger if he’s tame”, she’s tame and lost her bite in terms of production and blasting out her hedonistic vocal whirlwinds. For previous sentimental reasons, I have mixed emotions about this revert to muffled production; she also likes Sundays while I never did, and it’s too soon to know but she ought to know.
Miss Ella Fitzgerald and Mr Gordon Jenkins Invite You to Listen and Relax (1955)
You will relax with her soothing sensuality along with the plucky, listenable arrangements of Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra, which bring out that reverential tone of our jazz vocalist queen.
When she’s devoid of her scatting, this is what I like; her flowing clarity, youthful yet experienced innocence, unassuming passion, and her carefree, whimsical, lovelorn fretting. The first sign of dramatic orchestration is heard in “Black Coffee” and “Lover’s Gold” which is a nice dynamic to add in amongst her usual jazzy ballads.
Sweet and Hot (1955)
“… Like a nightingale without a song to sing” – you do have a song to sing, Ella, I just wish it didn’t sound the same as the last one. I am qualified in knowing what the hilarious “Around the golf course I’m under par” means.
“He’s the kind of man/Needs the kind of a woman like me” is evidence of her more confident brashness, with the more fast-paced vitality added to the second side of the album lifting the dreary opening quintet. “I guess I should hate you, but I guess I love you” showcases her brutal but playful honesty which is always a joy.
Love Songs: Best of the Verve Song Books (1996)
Losing track of her collection of albums from the Verve era is understandable, so condensing it into a somewhat one-stop-shop (not at all) is parity (not at all). When I say “one-stop-shop”, I mean lumping everything into a sixteen-CD box and passing it off as some sort of haven of “greatest hits”.
Swinging, swaying and salubrious, our Ella’s gift of the cheek and brash with her subtle yet forceful warmth in “Love You Madly” and “All the Things You Are” will, as always, bring a smile to your weary face. I can only wish I experienced and exposed myself to more of her erratic scatting and horn-like vocals, but if the silky surrounds of a record such as this is all I’m going to get, I can live with that. Behold her impeccable tone and clarity, and the ballroom pop of “Just One of Those Things” will grasp your attention when you’re inevitably losing it.
The Best of Ella Fitzgerald (1996)
I must face disrespectful facts in this day and age of much produced and polished music; her talent was a chore to enjoy, as her sound is much the same in every encounter with a new track. This is definitely another wrongful illustration of her career, or maybe not, I don’t know anymore.
One of the great voices of the twentieth century, no doubt, this horrendous overall selection of her work on my part will have the jazz jury hard on my case. If you ignore the monotony of the actual songs (and my choice of records), her diversity is to be revered – jazz ballads, salacious swinging, scat singing, hilarious Louis Armstrong impersonations, horn-like histrionics and at times a melodramatic tone but with a youthful carelessness. All of this adds up to a stylish performer and purveyor, it must be said, in traditional pop through her voice alone.
I would listen again, but through the eyes and ears of a keen music fan rather than a “critical analyst”. To produce a plethora of classic songs with many of the greats of the jazz world and make every song book sound like it’s hers is a beautiful thing indeed and will evoke a strong emotional connection between your twenty-first-century ears and her twentieth-century voice.