The best of the Gershwin Songbook
All Music Guide
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If, as is widely believed, Ella Fitzgerald is the best female jazz singer, and if, as is universally accepted, her songbook albums constitute her best work, and if, as is generally conceded, the Gershwin volume is the best of the songbook series, and if, as the title of this compilation indicates, this is the best of the Gershwin collection, then what we have here is the best of the best of the best of the best.
And that's not bad.
But there is still left to consider how that came to be. To begin, Fitzgerald herself was at a performing peak during the sevcn-and-a-half-month period, January-August 1959, that she recorded the fifty-throe songs that make up the five LPs (now throe CDs) of the Gershwin songbook. (With the exception of "S' Wonderful", which was recorded in July, all of the songs selected here were cut in January and March.) She turned forty two on April 25. 1959, a healthy if overweight woman who, unlike many of her peers, did not smoke, drink, or use drugs.
Though she maintained a heavy touring schedule, these sessions were not rushed as those for the 1956 Cole Porter songbook, which resulted, suggests biographer Stuart Nicholson, in a singer whose "voice sounds a little frayed around the edges, as if at the end of a long day in the studios".
"I remember going in there, they were spread over several weeks [sic] doing those albums," pianist Lou Levy told Nicholson of the Gershwin sessions.
Ella would come in, she would sing with her hand over her ear in that little isolation booth they threw up in the studio, and she would just crank them out, one after another. Funny thing, they never sounded as if they were cranked out. Nelson Riddle did a fantastic job; wo actually did them pretty rapidly for the quality of the music. We'd run through the arrangements to make sure there were no bad notes in them, then Ella would try them out. . .. [W]e didn't do a lot of takes because of mistakes, there wore hardly any, the musicians were all great.
As Levy suggests, another important factor was the involvement of Riddle as arranger/conductor. Fitzgerald's Porter and Rodgers and Hart songbooks had been handled by Buddy Bergman, and the Duke Ellington album had Ellington himself and Billy Strayhorn, but it takes nothing away from them to note that, by 1959, Riddle, largely due to his work on Frank Sinatra's "concept" albums, was considered the best choice for this kind of project: updating interwar Broadway song craft to a modern Fifties sensibility.
In fact Riddle had cut several of these songs with Sinatra, and a comparison is instructive. A Foggy Day was one of the first Sinatra-Riddle collaborations, in 1953, and they took a jaunty approach. Six years later, Fitzgerald and Riddle are more refined. Where Sinatra, on the verse, sounds upset to find himself stranded in London when all his friends are out of town, Fitzgerald sounds merely disappointed. By the refrain, when the continuance of "the age of miracles" has been proved by the appearance of a romantic partner, he is happy; she is just pleased.
A similar contrast in intensity, in both arrangement and vocal performance, is evident on Someone to Watch over Me. Riddle's 1954 chart for Sinatra, anchored by a plucked guitar, echoes the singer's ponderous, longing tone. Fitzgerald is more even-tempered, but she's also wishing for something a little more physical. In a singer this subtle, small effects are telling: Consider the pause after "had" and before "in mind" in the verse; note that, in Fitzgerald's reading of the lyric, the key word is "key", melismaticalty extended on the line, "To my heart he carries the key". Sinatra is lonely while Fitzgerald is at least mildly aroused.
But the one who pounces, in a 1956 Nice Work if You Can Get It, is Sinatra, who employs his ring-a-ding-ding style, while Fitzgerald's reading, complete with verse sung over a solo guitar, is just good-natured. In each case, the singers make an emotional connection to the words, but the emotions differ.
Such comparisons are useful because Sinatra is so often cited as an "internal" or "inside" singer, who makes expressive use of lyrics, while Fitzgerald is seen as an "external" or "outside" singer who, with her jazz sensibility, is more interested in words as sounds and sometimes may even be indifferent to their meaning.
However that may be generally, it is not the case with Fitzgerald's 1959 Gershwin recordings, and that is another reason why these performances show her at her best. Of all the great lyricists of the interwar period, Ira Gershwin was they most effective at conveying common romantic feeling, especially from a female perspective. Though he was capable of the wordplay of a Porter or a Lorenz Hart, his sense of romance had depth and continuity of feeling, unlike their frequent emphasis on surface attraction and immediacy (with its homoerotic subtext). One can hardly imagine Porter writing affectionately of people who are not good looking, as Gershwin writes in "Someone to Watch over Me" and Funny Face, or declaring the kind of permanent devotion Gershwin does in They Can't Take That Away from Me.
Fitzgerald clearly responds to those feelings, however, as well as to Gershwin's overall lightness of tone (he is never as sentimental or despaing as Irving Berlin), which often comes out in the introductory verses she makes a point of singing. It's not surprising that, by 1959, she had already included several Gershwin songs in her repertoire. Best known of these is her Decca recording of Oh, Lady, Be Gooo! which provides an interesting contrast to the one included here. In 1947 she used the song as a platform for a fast-paced scat excursion; twelve years later she sings it straight.
Finally, the Gershwin songbook benefited from the participation of Ira Gershwin himself. True, Ellington and Strayhorn had been at the sessions for the Ellington songbook, but Fitzgerald's manager-producer, Norman Granz, expressed frustration that the composers did not, as requested, prepare arrangements beforehand - giving the recordings a more impromptu air than Granz wanted '. Granz was a friend of Gershwin's, however, and the lyricist was available for help. According to Fitzgerald, Gershwin provided the music to "The Real American Folk Song" (not included here) when it couldn't be located. He also wrote a few new lyrics to 'S Wonderful to fill out the original two-stanza song. (Fitzgerald also used some of the lyrics added for the 1951 film An American in Paris, and with her precise pronunciation of sibilants," 'S exceptional" took on the risqu? meaning Gershwin probably intended, but that Frenchman Georges Guetary, who sang it in a duet with Gene Kelty, did not bring out.)
So it isn't so hard to make a musical masterpiece. You only have to take the right singer at the right point in her career, bring in the right musicians and the right material, and then spend enough time to do the job right.
No wonder it almost never happens.
- William Ruhlmann (October 1995)