Ella Fitzgerald and legendary bandleader/pianist Count Basie shared an innate sense of rhythm and swing that made them a great pair, and they teamed up a few times during her career.
1963's Ella and Basie! is 41 minutes of wall-to-wall excellence from some of the top musicians in jazz, and one of the finest ever released by either artist. In 2017, online music news magazine Pitchfork named it the 175th best album of the 1960s, saying of Ella and Basie, "As musicians, they had almost too much in common. The horns in his band punched with a lead singer’s brio, while she sang like a horn, winding and unpredictable, the words mere containers for the sounds she made."
The swingin' is indeed mutual, made possible by a young Quincy Jones, who took a bunch of songs from the '30s, '40s, and '50s and outfitted them with robust arrangements designed to showcase both parties' strongest skills and their sharp, natural swing.
"Them There Eyes" is a jaunty tune written in 1930 by Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and William Tracey. Its first recording by a major jazz artist was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1931, in a take that found Armstrong taking typically major liberty with the melody and timing.
The best known version was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, with a vocal delivery heavily cribbing from the Armstrong version (to the extent that one wonders if she'd ever even heard the actual melody).
Ella's take brings the written melody back into focus, amid a bouncy jump blues arrangement that throws in everything but the kitchen sink, with Ella taking a full scat chorus and trading bars with band members, Basie taking a full chorus on piano in his sparse, witty style, solos from multiple band members, and even a false ending.
Ella's playful delivery is infectious - you can hear the smile on her face. And take special note of the notes and phrasing she chooses throughout the song - this is another great example of Ella thinking more like a horn player than a singer. The scat chorus is a small joy (she even throws in a quote from Dizzy Gillespie's "Oop Bop Sh' Bam") - and check her insane vibrato at the 1:29 mark!
Ella and the Count would work together again several times, but sadly, she would not reunite with Quincy Jones again until his 1989 Back on the Block album. (We'll definitely be covering that later on.) Given the muddled downturn her studio output took after leaving Verve Records in 1967, it is truly tragic to think of how many more great albums she could have made with someone like Quincy Jones writing arrangements to emphasize her talents.
Ella and Basie! is a must-have for Ella lovers.
A live performance of the arrangement as a quicker tempo on the February 2, 1964 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, with Roy Eldridge featured on trumpet. (This is the same episode that would include her impromptu performance with Sammy Davis Jr.; the Sullivan show would switch to color the following year.) An especially glamorous Ella digs in and gives a great delivery, and she's obviously having a very good time. She throws in a quote from "The Sailor's Hornpipe," (which you probably know as the intro to the Popeye theme). Quoting that piece was something she did regularly (see her best employment of it in Day 2's "All of Me").
The false ending fools the audience, and they applaud wildly through the second ending, which seems to spur her energy. It's fun.
An unusual performance with the Oscar Peterson Trio at the Chicago Opera House on September 29, 1957. To be frank, I'd never heard this one until today, and I honestly have no idea what to make of it. It's very strange. Her voice sounds more like it did in the early '50s for some reason, and I don't hear any of the confidence of the woman who'd already released the Cole Porter and the Rodgers and Hart Songbooks, had just recorded Porgy and Bess with Louis Armstrong, and was in the process of recording the Duke Ellington Songbook. I don't hear the creative ideas, I don't hear the sense of swing, I don't hear the inventive scatting. I can't tell if she's not completely familiar with the melody or is trying to be creative with it and just not quite making it work, she seems to lose the beat several times... I just... there's a lot going on here, and I don't know what this is or how to regard it. Take a listen and decide for yourself:
A live performance on the French Riviera in the final days of July 1964, with Eldridge on trumpet again. Played at breakneck pace, the tempo seems to run away from them and you can hear them struggling to keep up as Ella runs out of steam fairly early.
Scat singing is a very difficult art, and the singer makes up their own melody on the spot, and sometimes the ideas just aren't there. You can hear Ella realize almost immediately into the scat chorus that she doesn't have any musical ideas this time, and she falls back on common licks and random high notes to fill time until the end of the chorus, at one point stumbling enough to briefly lose the rhythm altogether.
I include this to highlight just how GOOD she was overall. Even legends aren't perfect. Even Ella sometimes didn't do great scatting. But you can hear that her mind is working, thinking, the entire time, and because it's not so successful, instead of just hearing flawless music, you hear the work, you hear the effort. The next time you hear a terrific scat chorus by Ella, remember that she worked just as hard that day, too. At her best, she made it sound as easy as breathing, but it is always, always work.
She fares better at the same tempo in this 1965 televised performance with Tommy Flanagan's trio. This fast live version done here and in the above clip is curious to me because it's an unusual example of Ella choosing to spend most of a song at the top end of her belt range (which ends up making it sound like it's in too high a key for her), producing a ragged sound in her voice. That ragged, high belt is something Ella occasionally touched on in songs to great effect, and sometimes sang entire songs with, but not usually quite this high throughout. She finds more to do with the scat chorus, throwing in snatches of several different songs including "Exactly Like You" and, of course, "The Sailor's Hornpipe" again.
The whole thing, really, comes together much better, though it's still hard to shake the feeling that the tempo kind of takes off and leaves her running to catch up.
Ella 101 is a daily look at 101 essential recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, who was born 101 years ago this month. Tune in to Equinox, Monday nights from 8 - 11 p.m. on WYSO, to hear Ella and more great jazz with host Duante Beddingfield.