The first thing you need to know is when it comes to singing: Ella Fitzgerald is the tops. There is none better. I know you’ve probably heard, from other cats in the know, that its Sarah or Billie Holiday. Maybe they’ve even dropped some heavier names on you: Carmen McRae, Annie Ross, or Betty Carter. And don’t get me wrong — they’re hip. But nobody — but NObody — can sing like Ella Fitzgerald. She is the epitome of swing. She’s the authority on pretty much every song she sings (even the famous live version of “Mack The Knife” where she forgets the words and improvises a few choruses to the joy of the audience). And when it comes to the oft-marred art of scatting, she’s one of the original masters (admittedly, Betty Carter became the insane queen of scat). So if you’re hip, you got to be up on your Ella Fitzgerald.
So a 4-disc set of live engagements in 1961 and ‘62 is a veritable gold-mine for the Ella enthusiast.
Here’s the thing about Ella — she was so awesome that when she was really working on the scene and jazz was still in its prime (just about the late-50s and most of the 60s) most of records were gigantic productions. The kind that featured either a whole orchestra, or some big-name big band (Duke Ellington or Count Basie). And generally that kind of record is pretty orchestrated and through-composed. Everything in its right place, all the tempos set, and all the excursions meticulously planned out. Nothing against that, of course, usually everything aimed towards highlighting the singer so it works out. And many of those records are classic Ella records. But something you don’t hear often is Ella Fitzgerald backed only by a trio (or quartet) and stretching out an informal club-type atmosphere. And certainly not in the early 60s when she was making all those big-time records.
But everyone knows musicians make their money from performing (excepting big pop stars) and so they have to tour. And when you tour it can be pretty impractical to drag around a 30-piece band or a full-orchestra, so she was probably doing most of her gigs with the trio. Stretching out. And improvising and ad-libing, and taking requests and such. I think the lack of evidence of that work has caused Ella to suffer a bit as history describes her. After her, so many singers did their regular work AND records with small combos. So all the names from up top? There’s plenty of evidence how they stretch out and do a couple of set in an intimate setting. Not so for Ella. She’s always been something of jazz’s perfect singer. And that means, for many listeners, that they can’t picture her doing her thing with her working band and being on the grind.
So 12 Nights in Hollywood comes as a great learning tool for those who don’t yet know all the dimensions of Ella Fitzgerald. The woman could rock a night club. Most of the 76 tracks in this collection have her fronting a simple jazz trio (the rest are a quartet with guitar added) and so there are no big horn cadenzas, no long wood-wind solis, no back-up singers in 4-part harmony. Nope: Ella handles all of that. And — wow — what a force she is. Every track is worth listening to a hundred times before moving on to the next one. I had a professor once describe Ella as the greatest jazz harmony teacher that ever existed — and that claim is supported by her amazing work on this record. She rips of tight runs and subtle melisma like its nothing. Tossing out flawless octave leaps here and there. Singing right through the transpositions without making it sound like anything too complicated has happened.
And just the way she sings the songs — that’s amazing in and of itself. I call this collection a treasure because you’ve got the master in her element singing songs from all over the jazz scope. She’s singing all the great tunes and, like I said, each cut is an authoritative rendering. Every jazz singer should be shedding this record. No matter who you’re into now, this was the voice that brought it into the modern era for female vocals.
A few tracks that stand out? The deep swinging funkiness of “Old Black Magic,” the loping jauntiness of “Mack The Knife” (note her homage to her own classic improvise version and her impeccable Satchmo impression), and — perhaps most illuminating of all – ”Joe Williams Blues.” Another often quoted idiocy is the claim that Ella couldn’t sing the blues. That she was just too “happy” to pull it off. To those folks I always say: have you ever heard Lester Young on a blues? Count Basie? or Jay McShan? The blues isn’t all woe-ing and weeping. Oftentimes the blues is a jumping and swinging affair (it was the blues, after all, that nearly caused a riot in ‘56 when Ellington had everyone dancing in the aisle at Newport!). And Ella brings it full-tilt boogie on the blues. She scats a couple choruses and sings right on through. Its absolutely divine.
As per the stretching out, there’s a real treat if you get to “Candy” (on the third disc) where Ella finishes up a tune and realizes that Carl Reiner is in the audience with lyricist Mack David and on the spot she decides to sing David’s “Candy” (which contains a lyric by David). Of course she doesn’t really know the song and you’ll hear here make up a few lyrics in the A-section. The highlight, though, is you can hear David giving her the lyrics as she sings through the bridge. Its a fascinating moment in her live performance to see her AND the band (the band! the band!) play one so off the cuff like that at a moment’s notice.
Well I could go on about this collection for days. I can say that if you think you know anything about jazz singers, you need to dig your eyes on 12 Nights in Hollywood. Its Ella Fitzgerald at the height of her powers. Her voice is ripe and supple (even on the tracks where you can tell she’s probably been singing all night and she missed a few of those high notes), her interpretations are unbeatable (and you aren’t likely to find any thing better from anyone else), and the band (Lou Levy, p; Wilfred Middlebrooks, bs; Gus Johnson, dms; Herb Ellis, gt) is unbeatable.
And trust me, the tracks never get tired. I listened to all 76 tracks in a single sitting and didn’t want to get up when it was over. You’ll want to listen all the way through the end of the fourth CD (there are some great gems on that last disc). Yeah, they call her the First Lady of Song — and its a much deserved moniker. She’ll really give you something to scream about. My only complaint is that its over so soon. From what I’ve read there’s ton more Ella in the Verve vaults. Hopefully, in the years to come, they’ll be even more cause for celebration.