The final albums of legendary music stars seem to fall into one of two camps critically: either they are reviewed as being “a little sad,” or as only having “slight glimpses of former glories” – or they are viewed as artistic triumphs. Ella Fitzgerald’s final album, All That Jazz, recorded in 1989 and released in 1990, has always tended to fall into the first group.
Ella had barely recorded at all after 1983, producing an album with Joe Pass in 1986 and then this final album at the end of the decade. And yet live performances from the period that have been preserved actually show her to be in good form for much of the time – and even adding new or rarely heard material to her repertoire. But what may well have led to her return to the studio in 1989 was the 1988 release of a thirty year old concert recorded in Rome, which went straight to #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. In concerts, Ella made references to the album, and seemed proud of her achievement. And, although it wasn’t known at the time, it was the first in a steady stream of previously unreleased concerts from Ella’s Verve years that is still on-going.
In the liner notes to All That Jazz, Norman Granz makes reference to the change in Ella’s voice by the time it was recorded. He also makes reference to the fact that she was one of the few of the jazz greats still alive, let alone recording. And yet, a great jazz combo was put together for the album, including Al Grey, Clark Terry, Harry Edison, Ray Brown, Bobby Durham and Benny Carter. This wasn’t just a rehash of what Ella had done in the past, though. While a couple of numbers were associated with her, others had been out of her repertoire for decades, and others had barely been recorded by anyone. There are not really any How High the Moon-style flight of fancies here (the nearest we get is the scat number Little Jazz, but it’s a pale imitation of what had gone before); the days of raising the roof with five minutes of scat singing were perhaps gone. Here, the general vibe is that of a relaxed get-together of some old friends. Even a song such as Oh Look at Me Now is given a ballad reading.
So, while this was an unambitious record, it certainly was a sensible one for a seventy-something who was well known to be struggling with her health. And yes, that voice is certainly weaker than it was just five years earlier, but it’s still that voice. The opening Dream a Little Dream of Me, that Ella had swung with Basie back in the early 1960s, seems to set the scene very well. Ella is happy to contribute an opening and closing chorus for each number, and let her musicians have the spotlight for the rest, giving this a real feel of a jam session – a kind of later version of an album such as Fine and Mellow or even Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.
Ballads like My Last Affair (a song she had first recorded over fifty years earlier) and Baby Don’t You Quit Now fit Ella like a glove, and while Ella sounds a little more uneasy on the upbeat songs like Jersey Bounce and When Your Lover Has Gone (to which she still manages to contribute a short scat chorus that puts other singers half of her age to shame), she still manages to swing with confidence, and that ability to twist and turn a melody at will hasn’t diminished.
Ironically, the weakest upbeat number is probably the title song – not the well-known number from Chicago (a show that Ella had recorded two songs from in 1975 for a single – her only Pablo recordings never to have made it to CD), but a song from the mid-1960s first heard in the movie A Man Called Adam – a song that fails not because of Ella, but because it’s not the greatest song in the world. Elsewhere, the only ballad that Ella seems to struggle with is That Old Devil Called Love, with its angular, wide-ranging melody just too much for a well-weathered voice. Two songs were only released on the CD version of the album. Little Jazz was of no great loss to those who bought the vinyl, but they missed a lovely ballad performance by not getting to hear The Nearness of You – which would have been a better title for the album than All That Jazz.
Ella did venture into the studio again a year or so later, supposedly to record another album with Joe Pass – a project which was never finished and which no audio has been released from. She also recorded The Setting Sun, her very final studio recording, the theme song to a Japanese film – and if ever there was an appropriate title for a legend’s last musical statement on record, it was that. That song isn’t commercially available (although it’s on YouTube), and her voice had deteriorated further by that time.
No-one is going to pretend that All That Jazz is Ella’s finest or most exciting moment on record (although it did win her a Grammy). It clearly isn’t, and yet it seems a warm-hearted and fitting end to her recording career, and it’s certainly not the sad album that so many have made it out to be. There is no strain in what Ella does here – she knows her limitations, and it’s almost as if one can imagine her in a comfy chair in her living room, microphone in hand, and with a group of musical friends with her, playing through some old favourites, asking each other “do you remember this one?” or “why did we never get around to such-and-such?” And what a wonderful image that is.