Where would we be without Ella?
Without that voice, that propulsive sense of swing, that fleet technique and that seemingly inexhaustible well of improvisational creativity?
Ella Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at age 79, remains the ultimate female jazz singer. It’s easy to treasure Billie Holiday’s interpretive depth, Sarah Vaughan’s extraordinary vocal range, Carmen McRae’s soulful manner and Dinah Washington’s larger-than-life instrument while realizing why Fitzgerald alone earned the sobriquet First Lady of Song.
More than any other female jazz singer, Fitzgerald encompassed aspects of all the singers listed above, and then some.
That’s apparent once more in “Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes” (Verve). Granted, record labels probably will never stop finding “lost” material by jazz legends who performed and recorded prolifically. Each year seems to bring rediscovered material by Miles Davis, Bill Evans and other jazz icons who performed and recorded so prolifically that all the material simply couldn’t be released during the course of a single lifetime. Their exalted reputations mean there’s a seemingly never-ending market for the latest “lost” or “bootleg” release. Much of it is far from essential.
In the case of “Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes,” however, there’s truly cause to celebrate. And not just because any cache of new Fitzgerald material is worth at least a listen. Recorded before a robustly enthusiastic audience at the Sportpalast in Berlin on March 25, 1962, the album captures the distinct excitement that Fitzgerald could generate in concert.
If her studio albums, such as the “Songbook” recordings she made for producer Norman Granz, document Fitzgerald backed by a plush orchestra in acoustically pristine conditions, her concert work shows just how freewheeling and risk-taking a performer she was.
“‘The Lost Berlin Tapes’ is a result of Granz’s habit of recording Ella live and then, driven by his next project, forgetting all about it,” writes Stuart Nicholson in the recording’s liner notes. He explains that the material was “discovered in Norman Granz’s tape collection” and remained “unheard since 1962.”
That’s a long time to wait to hear what Fitzgerald could achieve in the midst of an intense European tour that would have worn down the voice and energy of mere mortals.
The recording opens with Fitzgerald singing Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” her pitch characteristically impeccable, her seemingly effortless swing rhythm swaying from one offbeat to the next. There’s no mistaking the sheer joyfulness of this reading, nor the remarkably relaxed quality of her instrument as she performs for a screaming throng.
To this day, the myth endures that Holiday was the profound song interpreter while Fitzgerald produced only surface beauty. That Holiday plumbed the tragic depths of the human experience while Fitzgerald offered mere sunshine.
That cliché crumbles once again on “The Lost Berlin Tapes,” which stands out most for her ballad singing. She opens “Cry Me a River” with a sensuous, wordless vocal line drenched in blue. As the reading unfolds, she builds to an outcry, her high-register exhortations sometimes dipping swiftly to a throaty low range. In effect, Fitzgerald has tapped the tune’s darkest currents while producing the lush, plush tones that are uniquely hers.
Frank Sinatra remains widely identified with “Angel Eyes,” a torch song he recorded and performed often. He surely expressed its sense of 3 a.m. angst with unmatched fervor. But Fitzgerald makes it her own, giving the song a slow-burn approach that’s a testament to her vocal and interpretive control. Notwithstanding the deliberate tempo, she conveys a white-hot vocal intensity, reinventing the melody line with strategically placed embellishments. Her a cappella coda takes the tune into another realm entirely, making for a devastating finale.
And though uncounted jazz singers – including Fitzgerald herself – have recorded “Summertime” from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” Fitzgerald’s version stands out for her luxuriant tone, delicate ornaments, alternative note choices and signature dips and rises in melodic contours.
Yes, there’s plenty of energy on the recording, too, in the form of an upbeat and playful “I Won’t Dance,” a deep-swing “Jersey Bounce” and a raucous “Mack the Knife” (complete with Fitzgerald’s growling imitation of Louis Armstrong). Backed only by pianist Paul Smith, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Stan Levey, Fitzgerald summons enough sound and rhythmic propulsion to keep a rather large audience satisfied (judging by the ovations).
In the end, though, it’s the interpretive insights and musical versatility of “The Lost Berlin Tapes” that shed the most light on Fitzgerald’s art.
That she could convey this much meaning in a live concert reminds us anew of the uniqueness of her achievements.
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