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Music Review: Various Artists – We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song

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My great-Uncle Clemie was a jazz fanatic. A quiet, practically invisible insurance executive by day, he haunted smoky New York jazz clubs at night becoming a wild man, pounding booze and slapping tables in time with beats meted out by the likes of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey. However, it was jazz singing and scatting that he adored, and when Ella Fitzgerald was in town, Clemie took up residence in the club she was at for her entire run.

Were Clemie alive today, he’d have arrived at The Jazz Record Center last Tuesday about an hour before they opened to purchase the new Verve tribute album, We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song. While not an entirely successful album, it’s a brilliant reminder of Fitzgerald’s legacy.

The album features a roster of stars, both past and present, putting their own special bent on Ella’s music. Tracks include Natalie Cole on “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Chaka Khan doing “Lullaby of Birdland,” Dianne Reeves working “Oh, Lady be Good,” Linda Ronstadt singing “Miss Otis Regrets,” and Michael Buble crooning on “Too Close for Comfort.” These renditions are good, but the vocalists sound like they’re trying a little too hard to evoke Fitzgerald rather than applying their own styles to the songs. To be fair, this may be the fault of producer Phil Ramone, who possibly wanted traditional interpretations, a somewhat anti-jazz direction.

These tracks also suffer from some treacley instrumental arrangements from Rob Mounsey, making some of the album too subdued for the likes of power vocalists like Queen Latifah, Reeves, and Khan. It’s interesting to compare these particular tracks with the two Fitzgerald recordings featured on We All Love Ella – including a previously unreleased live piece with Stevie Wonder on “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” on which Ella’s vibe is so energetic, it sends Wonder’s back-up band into overdrive.

There are some standout performances though. Vocalist Diana Krall and pianist Hank Jones offer a stirring version of “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” Etta James belts out a saucy “Do Nothin’ til You Hear from Me,” and k.d. lang absolutely nails the extremely complex, beautifully harmonic “Angel Eyes,” written by Matt Dennis and Earl Brent. The album ends with the up-tempo swing of “Airmail Special,” performed by 12-year-old sensation Nikki Yanofsky. The creative drive behind these tracks made me wonder why so many of the others featured were presented so tamely. Perhaps the success of this track is due not only to Yanovsky’s dynamism, but Tommy LiPuma’s open production style and the frenetic pacing of John Clayton’s arrangement.

Even though We All Love Ella isn’t a brilliant album, it does show why Fitzgerald became the huge star she was. Her vibrant, charismatic warmth enervated from each track she sang on – it was so huge, it couldn’t be contained by any producer or arranger. Unlike many of Fitzgerald’s original recordings, We All Love Ella is a mixed bag filled with mostly earthly, but sometimes sublime delights. For those unfamiliar with Fitzgerald, We All Love Ella may be a fine treat. But for hardcore fans like my late Uncle Clemie, We All Love Ella will make them yearn for the singular sensation that was Ella.

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