Ella Fitzgerald’s Country Album: Misty Blue

117365037It’s hardly surprising that viewpoints on this album vary wildly. For fans of Ella’s jazz material, it’s a waste of talent. For fans of country music, it’s a weird mish-mash of styles. But, let’s be honest, Ella had never been JUST a jazz singer. In fact, she had wrapped her tonsils around country music before, such as A Satisfied Mind back in 1955, and much of her material from the early to mid-1950s wasn’t jazz either, with her tackling the likes of Crying in the Chapel and Soldier Boy during those sessions. And, throughout the 1960s, she incorporated some of the “now sounds” (as she called them) into her albums and concerts, including Beatles tracks and the likes of Walk Right In. So, really, this country album didn’t come completely out of left-field.

It certainly was a strange choice of album as her first project for Capitol, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. In fact, it’s hugely enjoyable for the most part. Ella’s country is not dissimilar in sound to that on Bobby Darin’s You’re the Reason I’m Living album – and by that I mean that it takes country material and melds it with big band instrumentation. The songs are well-chosen too, with Ella given the chance to sing some rather feisty lyrics such as “This Gun Doesn’t Care Who It Shoots,” and there is also a wink and a nudge on a few tracks too, such as Evil on Your Mind and Don’t Let That Doorknob Hit You.

Ella was probably never in better voice than in the mid-1960s. On ballads, she had a fuller sound that was silky smooth, but she was also adding a kind of soul-like rasp to her voice on bluesier and upbeat material. The best songs here are those written by Hank Cochran – It’s Only Love and Don’t Touch Me, with Ella’s performance of the latter being truly beautiful. Also listen out for the phrasing on Born to Lose – absolutely stunning.

These songs might not have been her natural “bag” but they are beautifully recorded and Ella throws herself into this (on the face of it) unlikely project with great enthusiasm. She would continue to explore new avenues during the late 1960s with an album of hymns and spirituals, and even dalliances with rock on her two albums for Reprise – and that’s not to mention her reinvention of Hey Jude on the under-rated Sunshine of Your Love LP. In concert she would wail her way through Spinning Wheel, and even enter protest territory with What’s Going On (recorded live twice) and her own Capitol single It’s Up to You and Me – her self-penned response to the killing of Martin Luther King that has sadly never made it to CD.

The Wonders of Pablo Records

Most people with any knowledge or love of jazz will agree that the late 1920s through to the early 1940s was the first golden age of jazz, and that the 1950s was jazz‘s second coming, with the genre branching out into disparate and yet linked sub-genres such as be-bop, cool, west coast jazz and the resurgence of the big band. But what is generally forgotten or, perhaps, under-estimated, was what I would suggest was jazz‘s third golden age: the 1970s.

The 1960s was a tough time for many jazz artists and many jazz fans. Older statesmen of the genre seemed to lose direction, with big bands such as Basie and Ellington often making albums of current pop songs or short, simple arrangements of standards. Ella Fitzgerald ended up without a permanent contract, resulting in some unlikely albums for Capitol and Reprise. Meanwhile, acid jazz came to the fore, but was hardly the most accessible form of jazz. Yes, there were some fine albums recorded during the decade but as the 1960s progressed, jazz got lost in a milieu of a lack of ambition and direction and an overdose of pretension.

But then, in the early 1970s, Norman Granz came to the rescue. Granz had been behind the idea of taking jazz to the concert hall in the 1940s with his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, and he was champion of the jam session. He liked to sit a group of musicians in a studio or on a stage and light the touchpaper to see what happened. In 1972, he recorded a concert in Santa Monica, which he released as “Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic.” The concert was billed as a Basie/Ella Fitzgerald show, but Granz had some surprises up his sleeve, and presented the audience not just with the main stars of the evening, but also a revival of the JATP format, bringing out guest stars such as Stan Getz, Harry Edison, Roy Eldridge and Oscar Peterson for a number of jams. The show lasted nearly three hours (all of which is now available on CD) and signalled the birth of Pablo records – the finale is below:

Pablo records, for me, is the 3rd golden age of jazz. Pablo was not concerned with nurturing new talent, but bringing the old guard back to doing what they did best. Granz pulled together a great roster of talent, including Basie, Ellington, Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims and more. All were viewed in the early 1970s as well past their prime, but the recordings they made for Pablo show something different altogether, and the label went on to win multiple Grammy awards.

Pablo is well-known for two things. Firstly, a succession of some of the most awful album covers ever created:

And, secondly, reiterating the old saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. The big band albums aside, the key element of Pablo recordings was the notion of improvisation and spontaneity. Granz would get a group of musicians together and let them just jam on a batch of songs, often recording a whole album in just a couple of hours. The results are some of the greatest and most under-rated jazz albums ever recorded.

Granz was always keen at Pablo on mixing things up, trying combinations of musicians that would never normally come together. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was sounding rather ragged and harsh in 1973, but Granz put her in that most exposed of environments: the guitar/vocal duo. The result, the first of four albums with Joe Pass, is regarded as one of her finest hours. Count Basie and Oscar Peterson were pianists with wildly differing styles. Basie was the most economic of all players, using as few notes as possible to make his solos, whereas Peterson was a virtuoso of the keyboard, often using more notes in five minutes than Basie would in an hour. But, again, Granz pulled them together for a series of albums that are remarkable in their musicianship and entertainment. Many of the albums for the label were live efforts, with Ella Fitzgerald (as an example), being recorded in a live setting in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1983. In 1977 Granz virtually took over the Montreux festival and released a staggering fourteen albums from the event (and I may have missed some). He also used the label as a way of releasing tapes that he had recorded up to three decades earlier, allowing for new material by long-gone greats such as Art Tatum, Lester Young and John Coltrane.

Perhaps because of their look, the Pablo albums are almost unknown today outside of the jazz world. Ella’s Verve catalogue is still well-known, and yet much of it sounds square compared to the records she made in her twilight years for Pablo. Pablo’s product wasn’t progressive, forward-thinking jazz, and some afficianados might even call it conservative, but for me jazz has never been about intellect and challenging music, but having a great time. Pablo’s output was brilliantly accessible music, and wonderfully played by the great masters who managed to end their careers on a high thanks to Granz’s willingness to let them get on with their craft and do what they did best. Most of the albums have been released on CD through the Fantasy label.

So, here’s a toast to the wonders of the Pablo label, and jazz‘s 3rd, little-known, golden age.

Ella Fitzgerald Live in Paris (3 CD set)

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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.

Ten Favourite Christmas Albums

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A festive entry in my little series of “ten favourite” posts.  This time I turn my attention to music and Christmas albums.  So, in no particular order…

White Christmas with Nat & Dean (LP version)

Back in the 1970s, Music for Pleasure released a lovely 12 track LP alternating songs by Nat King Cole and Dean Martin.  It was a favourite in our house while I was growing up, and featured some fine performances and, rather strangely, the split album idea worked very well.  What’s more, it was one of the few places to find Dean Martin’s “The Christmas Blues” at the time.  It all went to pieces on the CD issue though.  Extra tracks were added, but only from Nat King Cole, thus upsetting the balance and the magic was gone.   The original album is superb though, and worth grabbing just to hear Nat King Cole tell us that he’s the “Happiest Christmas Tree” (Ho ho ho, he he he).

Seasons Greetings from Perry Como

This is Como’s Christmas album from 1958 and is one of the warmest Christmas albums you will ever find.  The first side features secular festive favourites, while the second side features Como singing carols, leading to the concluding lengthy track in which he narrates the story of the first Christmas, with his narrative interspersed by snatches of carols (this was something he started doing on TV in the early 1950s).  Como’s version of “Home for the Holidays” and “Oh Holy Night” make this a must – and the final track makes it a great one for the kids. 

Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas

If ever there was an unjustly neglected Christmas album, this might be it.  Ella forgets jazz for thirty-five minutes as she leads a choir through a series of Christmas hymns and carols.  A very different affair from her Christmas album for Verve, this was her second release for Capitol in 1967, and was either ignored by critics or ravaged by them.  In reality, Ella is probably in the best voice of her career and her warmth and sincerity oozes out of every groove.

A Dave Brubeck Christmas

Jazz Christmas albums are a little hit and miss, but this one is both delightful and unusual in that it finds Dave Brubeck playing solo piano rather than as part of a trio or quartet.   This is great stuff, with Brubeck still in great form despite being in his late seventies when it was recorded.  He might be best known for his  cool/bop jazz recordings, but perhaps the most enjoyable track here is “Winter Wonderland”, which finds him playing good old-fashioned stride piano. 

Michael Buble’s Christmas

It’s not very often a modern Christmas album becomes an instant favourite, but this one seems to be the exception.  Buble presents us with an album of mostly traditional Christmas fare, but a number of tracks have a twist – such as the wonderful Dixieland take on “Blue Christmas” – and others are just so well sung and arranged that it’s hard not to fall in love with the album.

Elvis’ Christmas Album

No, not the original 1957 version, but the 1970 issue which ditches the gospel material and adds “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” (a single from 1966) and the non-festive “Mama Liked the Roses”.  The 1966 track oddly fits snugly amongst the raw sounds of those recorded nearly a decade earlier in which songs range from the dirty innuendo-ridden blues of “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (Hang up your stockings/Turn down the lights/Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight) to the reverent take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”.   Elvis went on to record a second Christmas album in 1971, one which finds him in poor voice and singing a batch of mostly depressing, uninspired new songs.  It has to rank as one of the most disappointing sequels in history.

Harry Connick Jr: Harry for the Holidays

Harry Connick Jr’s Christmas albums are a mixed bag.  The first one, “When My Heart Finds Christmas” was so awful that ever after in our household he was known as “Harry Chronic”.   “Harry for the Holidays” is much better, and catches Harry during one of his better periods, following hot on the heels of his great “Come By Me”,“30” and “Songs I Heard” albums.  So this album features slightly left-field, whacky big band arrangements of mostly well-known Christmas songs.  “Frosty the Snowman”, which opens the album is typical of this, given a noisy makeover that makes it sound like something out of a New Orleans Mardi Gras.  It all runs a little out of steam by the end of the 65 minute album, but “Silent Night”, which closes the album, is given a lovely arrangement, mixing traditional jazz and gospel sounds. 

The Sinatra Family Wishes You a Merry Christmas

I wrote about this one a few days back in a separate post, but this is a fun album featuring Sinatra and his three kids.  Nancy Sinatra never sounded better.

Christmas with Chet Atkins

This is a lovely warm album of instrumentals from country-styled guitarist Chet Atkins, and features fourteen tracks and is ideal for non-obtrusive music while hanging up those decorations.  The original CD issue was rather botched for some reason, but it’s now available under the title “Songs for Christmas” in better sound – it couldn’t be worse than Mum and Dad’s copy of the album, though, which was bought in 1961 and regularly got stuck as the needle tried to avoid the scratches!

The Andy Williams Christmas Album

The BBC recently showed a couple of clip shows from the Andy Williams Show that ran from the early 1960s until the mid-70s (shame on the BBC for cropping the picture!).  Watching it reminds us of how talented Williams was in his prime, with vocal performances that saw him singing jazz with Ella Fitzgerald and folk with Simon and Garfunkel.   His Christmas album was released in 1963 and contains a relatively predictable set of festive favourites.   If the vocals are sometimes just a little too laid back at times, and the arrangements a little saccharine, there are still gorgeous performances of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “Happy Holidays” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.

This is my last post before Christmas, so have a great Christmas and we’ll gather here again in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year!

 

 

Jazz at the Santa Monica Civic ’72

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In 1975, jazz impresario Norman Granz released a 4LP boxed set of concert recordings from 1967 and called it “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World”, a slight exaggeration as the material was taken from a number of live dates.  Good though that set is/was, Granz perhaps could and should have used that grandiose title for his release from a couple of years earlier, “Jazz at the Santa Monic Civic ‘72”.  That concert, originally in slightly edited form on a 3LP mail-order set and now available unedited on 3CDs, was rather unusual.  It was billed as a Count Basie-Ella Fitzgerald concert, but unknown to the audience (and, so it is said, some of the participants) Granz had invited along a few special guests.  The audience was therefore treated to a concert that included nearly three hours of music with, alongside the Basie and Fitzgerald sets, featured a full-blown Jazz at the Philharmonic jazz session and a short set from Oscar Peterson.  What better way to kick off this blog, therefore, than by discussing what is one of most joy-filled and enjoyable jazz concerts that was ever recorded.

There must have been something in the air that night.  With the CD reissue we can finally hear the opening set by Basie in its entirety, and what a set it is.  The Basie band is heard at full force here and seems only too eager to let rip after those rather dull mid to late-1960s studio albums where they were reined in due to the two to three minute arrangements of each song.  Here, there is plenty of room for solos, but the ensemble playing finds the Basie band still as tight as a drum (so to speak), and a far cry from the slightly ramshackle outfit the Ellington band had become by this time.  DVD footage of the Ellington band from the period (great though it still was) finds the various players arriving late on stage, missing cues etc, but the Basie outfit remained a unique tight unit and is aided and abetted by the fine arrangements.

At the end of the Basie set, Granz takes to the stage to announce to a stunned audience the various guests that are about to take to the stage.  Oh, to have been in the audience that night.  The excitement in the audience as the names are read out is wonderfully captured in this fine recording.  And what a list of guests:  Ed Thigpen, Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Al Grey, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Harry Edison and Ray Brown.  The jam session then follows, starting with a 15 minute rendition of In A Mellow Tone.  Everyone is in fine form.  Often the JATP jams can descend into good-hearted chaos, but not here.  The jam builds up wonderfully and the solos are quite brilliant.  Loose Walk follows and is (if you’ll excuse the pun) relatively pedestrian in comparison.   A beautiful ballad medley follows, with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis stealing the show with his sublime rendition of If I Had You.  The first half of the show is then brought to a close by a final raucous jam, 5400 North.

The second half opens with yet another special guest, this time Oscar Peterson, who is joined by Ray Brown for a near-ten minute rendition of You Are My Sunshine.  But it is Ella Fitzgerald who really gets the second half into gear.  She had performed very little over the previous twelve months due to eye problems, but here she takes to the stage in brilliant voice and backed by the Basie band and her own trio.  Ella performs a number of songs not recorded by her elsewhere, starting with the Nat King Cole song L.O.V.E., and then wading into a Marty Paich arrangement of Begin The Beguine as if her life depended on it.  Cole Porter’s song had never been heard like this before, as Ella uses it to incorporate special lyrics about the great dance bands of the 1930s.  A Nelson Riddle arrangement of the beautiful Indian Summer follows, and then an epic take on You’ve Got A Friend and a rather unlikely cover of What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye!

The Basie band sits out to allow Ella and her trio to take centre stage for a quartet of numbers that includes a beautiful rendition of the rarely heard ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most and the Cole Porter classic Night and Day.    But the best is yet to come when the band rejoins Ella and her trio for Shiny Stockings, the theme tune to Sanford & Son, It’s Alright With Me, and a brilliantly realised five minute rendition of I Can’t Stop Loving You.

The evening comes to a close in what can only be described as possibly the most joyous JATP-style jam session of all.  For over ten minutes, Ella Fitzgerald trades fours with each of the horn players introduced earlier in the evening.   It is a fitting end to a wonderful show that sounds better than ever in its CD reissue, despite being re-mixed and mastered over twenty years ago.

This is wonderful , life-affirming music  with all of the participants having a wail of a time on stage (often literally!).  Many will cite the Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl concert of 1956 as the best multi-artist jazz concert of all time, but don’t make your mind up until you have heard this relatively little-known 165 minute epic from 1972.  This isn’t just jazz for jazz lovers, it’s jazz for music-lovers in general and anyone who wants to sit down in front of the hi-fi for three hours with a huge smile on their face.