Everyone knows how great Ella Fitzgerald is: she is considered by many to be the greatest female singer of the 20th century. But for many of us those are just words. Actually hearing Ella sing, recorded live with a series of small combos, is another story altogether. If you haven’t listened to Ella in a while, you will be astonished.
It almost doesn’t seem fair: not only was Ella possessed of a crystalline, impeccable, girlishly light soprano without a hint of annoying vibrato to mask the naked beauty, perfect pitch, inventive phrasing, and flawless diction, but she also was the greatest scat singer of all time, AND later in her long career her voice deepened and broadened into an amazing, gritty (when she wanted it to be), soulful R&B instrument, making it a hat trick with her classic jazz and popular standards supremacy. Damn.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Best of the Concert Years spotlights Ella with four combos: the Tommy Flanagan Trio (Flannagan – piano, Keter Betts – bass, Ed Thigpen – drums) recorded in 1972, the Ella Fitzgerald Quartet (Raymond Tunia – piano, Herb Ellis – guitar, Ray Brown – bass, J.C. heard – drums) recorded in 1983, the Jimmy Jones Trio (Jones – piano, Bob Cranshaw – bass, Sm Woodyard – drums) in ’67, and the Paul Smith Trio (Smith – piano, Betts – bass, Bobby Durham – drums) in ’83 – they all have their special pleasures.
I love her gentle swing, occasional growl, and precipitous (seemingly without effort) vocal leaps with Flanagan on “Little White Lies.” Her voice still high light and sweet in ’53, she swings and vamps the room into a series of symmetrical waves on “Why Don’t You Do Right,” dances with shocking precision and alacrity over Gershwin’s “Oh Lady, Be Good,” and delivers the smoldering ballad “I Got It Bad (And that Ain’t Good)” with finely spun emotion.
With Jones in ’67 she combines all of her voices on rollicking versins of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” In ’83 the then 66-year-old Ella showed her age only with a bit of huskiness and slightly less control, but she is perhaps even more affecting for sounding mortal.