Ella Warms Up the Concertgebouw in 1961

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THE LOST RECORDINGS: ELLA FITZGERALD LIVE AT THE CONCERTGEBOUW / Spoken introduction by Norman Granz. LEVY: Won’t You Please Let Me In. BOCK-WEISS-HOLOFERNER: Too Close for Comfort. LOESSER: On a Slow Boat to China. G. & I. GERSHWIN: How Long Has This Been Going On? I’ve Got a Crush On You. Lorelei. CARMICHAEL-LOESSER: Heart and Soul. DONALDSON: You’re Driving Me Crazy. ARLEN-MERCER: That Old Black Magic. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover Come Back to Me. RODGERS-HART: My Funny Valentine. WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife. HANDY: St. Louis Blues / Ella Fitzgerald, voc (all tracks except 1 & 2); Lou Levy Quartet: Levy, pn; Herb Ellis, gt; Wilfrid Middlebrooks, bs; Gus Johnson, dm / Fondamenta 1704027 (live: Amsterdam, February 18, 1961)

This formerly “lost” live session (probably not lost at all, since it was found, but simply misplaced as happened so often back in those days) is particularly warm and relaxed, the kind of session that almost never made it onto records in a studio. It opens with a spoken introduction by Norman Granz, a man who jazz musicians of all races and colors should get down on their knees and thank for promoting them against all odds, financial, musical and social, before moving into a nine-minute instrumental by the Lou Levy Trio. Levy was a good pianist though he won’t set your heart a-flutter with invention or excitement, and although the piece they play here is titled Won’t You Please Let Me In, the opening and closing are lifted straight from Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’. Interestingly, it’s the little-known bassist Wilfrid Middlebrooks who plays the most interesting and inventive solo here. His 2008 obituary in the Los Angeles Times put it succinctly: “Middlebrooks earned a reputation with musicians as an unflappable timekeeper, whose mastery of the instrument allowed him to be ‘heard as well as felt, but not obtrusively.’”

But then here comes Ella, and the two best things about her performance here is that she’s in fabulous voice and mucho relaxed. Her sense of jazz time is as impeccable as always, but although she sings with her usual joie-de-vivre she’s not pressuring the voice too hard. It’s like the live set that Frank Sinatra did in Australia with the Red Norvo band; everything clicks and sounds perfect, as if a master jazz composer had written out every note and phrase for her in advance. I’m not one of those who normally waxes enthusiastic over Ella the ballad singer—indeed, my regular readers know that I am allergic to lightweight, “cozy” readings of ballads by female singers—but even here, in How Long Has This Been Going On?, her sense of time is simply flawless, reminding me of her great 1939 recording of Stairway to the Stars. And she continues this cool groove into Heart and Soul, a song that no kid growing up in America during the 1950s and ‘60s can ever forget because we ALL learned to play the melody with one finger while some other kid played the boom-boom-cha-cha boom-boom-cha-cha rhythm in the bass clef.

Ella picks the tempo up, twice, in You’re Driving Me Crazy, medium-up at the beginning and very up for the second half, where she spurs Herb Ellis into some almost R&B-type licks. Then she drops the tempo into a nice bluesy groove for some off-the-cuff improv at the end. What a great performance! That Old Black Magic, which debuted on discs as a ballad (sung by Skip Nelson with the Glenn Miller band) but then became a hot tune for most jazz musicians, is also taken at a medium-uptempo, and the slight relaxation this creates is exploited by Fitzgerald’s right-on-the-money swinging groove. But there’s no holding back at all in her blazing version of Lover, Come Back to Me, which takes off like a rocket and never lets up. At the beginning of My Funny Valentine she promises the crowd, “it won’t be like the record. OK?” But it’s beautifully sung, her voice full and rich as it frequently was. I’ve Got a Crush on You continues her streak of ballads, but although Lorelei starts as an out-of-tempo ballad it moves into a bit harder pace with a nice kick from drummer Gus Johnson. Oddly enough for someone who sang the song 1,000 times since 1939, Ella forgot the opening lyrics of Mr. Paganini, singing “The concert was over in…concert hall,” but then corrects herself. It’s still a silly song, but no one could sing it as well she did.

In Mack the Knife Ella does her own thing while channeling Louis Armstrong. It swings but big deal. Happily, we still have the St. Louis Blues, and after a zillion versions of it (trivia question: who made the first vocal recording of it? No fair Googling it! It was white singer Marion Harris, for Columbia in 1918. She had to leave Victor for Columbia because Victor wouldn’t let her record it) she manages to find something fresh in it, singing the first half in a nice medium groove before doubling the tempo and driving it home on made-up lyrics (and scat, of course).

And so ends this wonderful, relaxed live date by one of America’s finest jazz singers.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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