The Irving Berlin Songbook’ – London Jazz News

Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl: The Irving Berlin Songbook

(Verve. Album review by Len Weinreich)

For most of his career, the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald was led by the incomparable impresario Norman Granz, founder of “Jazz At The Philharmonic” and the prolific jazz record labels Norgran and Clef. Granz always felt that Decca, Mrs. F’s label in the early 50s, was letting her talent down and, after years of frustration, ripped her out of her Decca contract and soon launched Verve, a new independent label, with Mrs F in the center.

At that time, Ella Fitzgerald was a mature artist at the peak of her abilities, far from her. ‘Tisket A’Tasket’ beginnings. But Granz had plans and envisioned a more sophisticated future. Together, under his inspired direction, they embarked on probably the most ambitious projects ever launched by an independent jazz label: a vast collection of albums dedicated to the most outstanding composers of American popular song. First Cole Porter, then Rodgers and Hart, then Duke Ellington. By project number four, they arrived at Irving Berlin.

George Gershwin, himself adept at creating indelible melodies, described Berlin as “the greatest songwriter that ever lived”. Jerome Kern, who was known for composing great tunes, said “Irving Berlin is American Music”. During Berlin’s long (he reached 101) and distinguished career, he wrote an unlikely number of classic ditties: the Easter hymn, ‘Easter Parade’; the unofficial national anthem: ‘God bless America’; the quintessential showbiz anthem: “There is no business like show business”; and, never forget, the ultimate Yuletide anthem: ‘White Christmas’.

Obviously, Berlin would be fondly remembered if he had only composed the tunes. But he also wrote all his own lyrics. Often they contained elaborate rhyme schemes which, given that he was born in Russia, are gems of the language, achieving astonishing levels of wit, compressed imagery and drama (‘Let’s face the music and the dance’, “How deep is the ocean?” and “Supper Time”).

While the arrangements and accompaniment of the first two songbooks were disappointing (although Number 3, the Ellington Edition featuring the Duke’s Orchestra was of a different order), Mrs Fitzgerald’s artistry has triumphed over all adversity and the entire series is now recognized as a significant cultural event. achievement. And luckily, while planning the Berlin albums, Granz enlisted a respected Hollywood arranger Paul Westonfinally supporting Mrs. Fitzgerald with the level of orchestral accompaniment she deserved.

Shortly after completing the studio sessions, she stormed the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles’ premier outdoor music venue, performing fifteen of the songs live, backed by the full Hollywood Bowl Orchestra ( sadly unidentified individuals, but all probably first called the Hollywood studio musos) playing Weston’s arrangements under his direction.

Norman Granz recorded the performance, apparently more for reference than release, as the audio quality of the tape reel, found hidden after his death, is substandard at the studio. While, of all the improbable instruments, the harp is clear, the trumpet solo on ‘Cheek to cheek’ sounds like the unidentified musician could have been trapped in the toilet.

Small defects on a major document. Forget all the audio gaps because the energy is tangible: all the electricity and release of a live performance. Ella engaging with Irving Berlin is a meeting of titans encouraged by the applause of an enthusiastic audience. The orchestra swings vigorously and Mrs. F (if not the trapped trumpeter) is received loud and clear. The effervescent vocals (plus a few relevant off-mic comments like “Well, I changed that melody” after running through a super high octane version of ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’) call the superlatives. Its reach is extraordinary. Its rhythmic pulse is flawless. Her enunciation is remarkable: listen to how easily she lengthens the vowel sounds on “How deep is the ocean?”. Listen to his delicate handling of the waltz on ‘Still’. Hear how she dives into her contralto tones to create a priceless gem from “Russian Lullaby”, a memorial to Berlin’s roots. And with what beauty she navigates in the chromatic subtly rarely encountered ‘Leave yourself behind me, Satan’. But above all, see how she demonstrates her supremacy over all big band singers with unbridled versions of ‘I got my love to keep me warm’, ‘Cheek to cheek’, ‘Top hat, white tie and tailcoat’, ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ and ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’.

And that’s why, with liner notes by jazz vocal rabbi Will Friedwald as well as atmospheric shots by jazz photographers as Burt Goldblatt and William Claxton, this album is a rare treat. Bing Crosby once commented: “man, woman or child, Ella is the greatest”. Perfect, Bing.

Track list: The song is over; You are laughing at me ; How deep is the ocean; Heat wave; supper time; Cheek to cheek; Russian lullaby; Top hat white tie and tailcoats; I have my love to keep me warm; Get behind me Satan; Let’s face the music and the dance; Still; Puttin’ on the Ritz; Let yourself go; Alexander Ragtime Band.
Ella Fitzgerald, vocals; Paul Weston, arranger and conductor. Recorded at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, California, USA, August 16, 1958

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