The Lady Could Swing: Ella Fitzgerald In Her Prime
Ella Fitzgerald was arguably approaching her vocal zenith in 1961 and 1962. Under the direction of Norman Granz, who ran Verve Records, Ella was in the midst of recording the great American songbook. Her collections of songs by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington (and Billy Strayhorn), Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer are acknowledged to be some of the greatest recorded jazz works of the 20th century. Yet it is also acknowledged that she did some of her best work in a live setting. Granz knew this, and took the necessary steps to record as much of Fitzgerald’s live shows as possible.
The 4-CD collection, Ella Fitzgerald Twelve Nights In Hollywood, is an incredible live document, culled from a twelve night stand at Hollywood’s The Crescendo Club, an intimate Sunset Strip nightclub where jazz musicians loved to play. Selections from the first ten nights, from May 11 through May 21, 1961 (with one night off), were released at the time on an album called Ella In Hollywood (with fake “concert hall” applause added), but as it followed the immense live album hit Ella In Berlin, critics weren’t as thrilled, although it sold well enough.
This collection provides better context. It showcases just how marvelous Ella was in a live concert environment; how she interacted and fed off her audience, what a great sense of humour she had, and just how good an improviser she was. And the lady could swing. Hard. Few could approach Ella’s natural ability to scat: others who try seem insincere or too mannered at it. Not Ella. At the time she was playing with a sensational band that had been with her for almost a year, so they were like a well-oiled machine: longtime accompanist Lou Levy on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, and Gus Johnson on drums. On the last two nights captured, on June 29 and 30, 1962, Ella is backed by a trio: Paul Smith on piano, Middlebrooks again on the bass, and Stan Levey on drums.
Ella sings almost her entire repertoire at the time, with several live versions of her hits over the years. What’s incredible though is that there are no repeated songs throughout the course of her tenure at the Crescendo. Each night showcases a different set. One could even purchase the newly re-issued Ella In Hollywood single disc as well, as none of the takes used in the box set are repeated on the single CD. A must-have for any jazz fan.
Originally published in IN Toronto Magazine, October 2010 issue.
Editor: Gordon Bowness