Richard Nisley

Sublime Ella and Subdued Frank
Pop Culture Released - Oct 18, 2015

Two Reviews:

ELLA FITZGERALD SINGS THE GERSHWIN SONGBOOK — I purchased this when it was reissued on CD in 1998. While I respected the undertaking, I was a bit overwhelmed. There was so much material, and most of the songs were ballads. I listened to all four CDs a few times, respected rather than loved the music, and put the CD collection away. Lately, I’ve been listening to it again, and for the first time I’m enjoying what I’m hearing. I mention this because, for me, Ella Fitzgerald was an acquired taste. Her singing was perhaps too perfect: a warm, honeyed voice, impeccable diction, superb timing, but somewhat lacking in emotional depth. Unlike Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, or Billy Holliday, she sang the melody rather than the words. But when she let loose and scatted, no one could touch her. No one could touch her anyway—she was “the first lady of song.” Duke Ellington ranked her "beyond category,” and Bing Crosby said of her, "man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest.”

The idea of recording an album dedicated to the music of a single composer—to Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, and George Gershwin—was the idea of Norman Granz, Fitzgerald’s producer and the owner of Verve Records. Pairing her with arranger Nelson Riddle was an inspired choice. They worked incredibly well together—and needed to. The project took eight months and seemed to drag at times. The faces in the orchestra changed from session to session as musicians came and went. None of them realized they were making a classic of the gramophone: fifty-nine songs with all new arrangements by Riddle, including all the verses many of which were being recorded for the first time, and lyricist Ira Gershwin on hand with suggestions and making minor changes to better suit the project, and Lady Ella in perfect voice. Considering the number of LPs it took (six in all), it sold surprising well. In the ‘90s it was remastered and repackaged to suit the new medium with updated liner notes about the sessions. For me, the key to appreciating the music is not to listen as you would to a collection of songs, but as you would to classical music, in particular to the gently-expressive music of Claude Debussy, whom, incidentally Nelson Riddle admired and studied. In a way, each of the four discs comprise a symphonic suite that feature orchestra and voice, flowing and grand, not to be rushed, but to be savored, like fine wine. Most of the songs are ballads, with uptempo tunes strategically placed here and there to provide variety and oomph and a change of textures. The ballads feature string orchestra while the uptempo tunes includes reeds and brass. The more you listen the more you hear, and the more you realize Lady Ella’s voice was art. Some of my favorite tunes includes “I Got Rhythm” (an opportunity for her to scat), “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” “Soon,” and “You Got What Gets Me.” Norman Granz said Lady Ella was a national treasure, and grand projects like this were designed to showcase her astonishing talent. Involving so many, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book” was nothing less than a labor of love.

SINATRA JOBIM: THE COMPLETE REPRISE RECORDINGS — Frank Sinatra was never one to do things halfway. With the Chairman of the Board it was “All or Nothing at All.” Rather than record a couple of Bossa Nova-flavored tunes as others were doing at the time, Sinatra plunged in head first and did an entire album with the man himself who created the genre—gifted Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim. And not just one album but two, as represented on this CD release. No other American pop star would so thoroughly immerse himself in the elegantly exquisite world of Bossa Nova, to the point of sacrificing his signature ring-a-ding vocal stylings in order to fit more smoothly into the new, gentler vernacular. While Sinatra used different arrangers on each set, namely Claus Ogerman on the first LP (in 1967) and Emir Deodato on the second (in 1969), Jobim’s presence can be heard throughout both albums, supporting Sinatra with his guitar, which is featured in both background and foreground, and with his voice, either humming or singing softly in Portuguese, sometimes behind Sinatra, other times filling in between his lines, the way a jazz obligatist like Harry “Sweet” Edison would do with his trumpet on a more aggressive Sinatra set. Jobim not only sets the mood but wrote nearly all of the songs. He composed seven of the ten songs on the first album, and all 10 on the second. The three non-Jobim songs are standards: “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “I Concentrate on You” and “Change Partners” which Jobim retooled to fit the Bossa idiom. Sinatra’s singing was the softest he had ever done—with the possible exception of his sessions with Axel Stordahl on the spare, chamber-styled “The Voice” in 1945. As the Chairman says in the liner notes, “I haven’t sung so soft since I had the laryngitis.” All 20 romantic ballads feature Sinatra’s super-subdued vocals atop gentle strings, understated brass, and gently undulating Brazilian rhythm. Final note: Sinatra greatly admired Jobim and acknowledged that their first collaboration was among his all-time favorite records; the second collaboration not so much, in light of the discomfort he had with three of the songs (see liner notes), which were withheld from the original release and now are rightly restored. The second LP is slightly edgier and more earthbound than the first, but equally as enjoyable.

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