This new 3CD set from the Fremeaux label is absolutely remarkable. The material was released previously in download form from other companies at various points, but in inferior quality to that presented here. Seven (maybe eight?) concerts from six dates are included here on three discs, all recorded in Paris during the period 1957-62.
The set starts with a five-track set from a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert during May 1957. While most of these songs are familiar Ella repertoire, it’s true to say that this is the best-sounding concert from 1957 so far released – far superior sonically to the familiar Newport and Stockholm releases. Ella is in great form (much better than at Newport) and includes Singing the Blues in her repertoire – a song she never recorded in the studio, and that fans only have in one other officially released concert. This version is better than that recorded in Stockholm, and contains a lovely seamless segue into Blues in the Night. The first disc continues with three songs from another JATP concert, this time from 1958. No explanation is given why Ella’s full set isn’t included, but it’s nice to have a rare live outing for A Fogy Day.
Next up are two sets from JATP concerts on February 23, 1960 (presumably matinee and evening performances), just a few days away from the Grammy-winning Ella in Berlin album. My guess is that the first track from this set is missing as she starts with a ballad, but the sound is once again remarkable. With a couple of exceptions, the repertoire is familiar – hardly surprising given that we already a concert from the same month. Still, its nice to hear a live version of S’wonderful from the recently released Gershwin songbook, complete with the rarely heard verse.
The first concert from 1961 is in slightly inferior quality, but that doesn’t mean there are any major problems, it’s simply not quite as clear and there are a few minor tape defects. Repertoire is much the same as from the forgotten Ella Returns to Berlin release. We then move forward to April 1961 for a set (possibly two) that features rare live outings of Every Time We Say Goodbye, Love Is Sweeping the Country, I was Doing Alright and the first ever release of Ella singing Straighten Up and Fly Right, a song which was in her live repertoire for at least forty years but was never officially recorded.
The 1962 concerts (again, two sets from the same day) which rounds out the set are really rather special, with a totally unexpected ballad version of C’est Magnifique, as well as live rarities More Than You Know and Spring Is Here.
I have highlighted various rarities, but unless you have the expensive Twelve Nights in Hollywood set released a few years ago, there are many songs here not available from Ella in live format elsewhere. Why does the live format matter? Well, the Ella represented here is a very different singer to that featured on the well-known Songbook albums from the same period. On those albums, she is a pop singer, backed with orchestral arrangements for the most part. Here, she is a jazz singer, working with anything from a trio to a quintet. This is, in many ways, the REAL Ella Fitzgerald. The performances are loose, spontaneous, and totally stunning. The squareness of Buddy Bregman’s arrangements for the Cole Porter album, for example, fade away when Ella presents the same songs here in very different formats.
The set is remarkable, and has been released with little fanfare (unlike the similarly themed Sinatra set out next week). The discs come in double jewel case with a twelve-page booklet. The notes, to be fair, don’t really tell us anything exciting, but it’s the music that counts, and it is presented here in mostly stunning quality – a remarkable feat given their age and rarity.
Are there any complaints at all? Well, the booklet could be more luxurious, and I’m certainly not a fan of splitting concerts across two discs, but I understand why it was done here to prevent a fourth disc being required. Otherwise, this is very special indeed.