ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917 in Virginia, orphaned at fifteen, and sent to a reformatory in New York until she escaped to live on the streets. Celebrating New Year's 1913, a twelve-year-old Louis Armstrong was arrested and sent to the New Orleans Colored Waifs' Home School For Boys. The crime?
Shooting a borrowed pistol into the air for the auspicious occasion. Curious beginnings indeed, for a couple of kids who were later to become two of the most influential jazz artists of the twentieth century.
In 1956, Fitzgerald teamed with guest artist Louis Armstrong, backed by Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass), and Buddy Rich (drums), for an album that was to be simply titled, Ella And Louis. Recorded at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, it was the first installment in the trilogy of Verve releases of Ella And Louis, Again and Porgy And Bess was to follow.
The album begins in earnest with 'Can't We Be Friends' and it doesn't pick up much speed from there. Not a bad thing. Irving Berlin's classic, 'Isn't This A Lovely Day', ponders on the bliss of romance and the album doesn't sway from this theme. It's a lovers' album; positive and uplifting lyrically and melodically, yet the playing is varied in mood. The sublime brushstrokes of the rhythm section are superb and subscribe to the "less is more" approach to playing.
Written by some of the greatest American songwriters, the album contains the classics 'Moonlight In Vermont', 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', 'Cheek To Cheek' and 'April In Paris'.
An unlikely pairing, Fitzgerald's buttery vocals combined with Armstrong's sandpaper gravel made a sweet-sounding tapestry of what can best be described, as tenderness. It sounds like they had fun recording this. Armstrong's vocals and trumpet add a relaxing charm, and along with the scatting, the feel is intimate and at times, comical.
Satchmo's supporting role as harmonizer does not go unnoticed, moaning and groaning in depths and extremes that many jazz singers would be too embarrassed to attempt, but he pulls it off with character and integrity.
You can imagine the mutual respect between them, the looseness and freedom that producer Norman Granz so cleverly conceptualized. It sounds like they were discovering each other's singing styles as new lovers would discover each other's personalities, adding to the spontaneity. “When I recorded Ella,” Granz remembered, “I always put her out front, not a blend. The reason was that I frankly didn’t care about what happened to the music. It was there to support her. I’ve had conductors tell me that in bar 23 the trumpet player hit the wrong note. Well, I don’t care. I wasn’t making perfect records. If they came out perfectly, fine. But I wanted to make records in which Ella sounded best.”
Good jazz duet albums are hard to come by, but this one is definitely worth investigating, and if you get a chance check out Armstrong's socks on the cover!