‘The Complete Piano Duets” Showcases Ella Fitzgerald At Intimate Best (ALBUM REVIEW)

Most of us think of Ella Fitzgerald singing in front of a big band or orchestra, be it Chick Webb, Duke Ellington or Count Basie. Yes, there are many smaller combo recordings too. Yet, perhaps the best way to appreciate the amazing quality of her vocals is to hear her accompanied only by a pianist. Now, for the first time, all of Fitzgerald’s captivating collaborations with pianists on the labels Decca, Verve, and Pablo, have been collected as The Complete Piano Duets, which is already available as a 2CD and digital collection via Verve Records/UMe. The double album includes detailed liner notes by noted author and music critic Will Friedwald.

The first musician to suggest this accompaniment was pianist Ellis Larkins who first asked to work with her for her 1950 album, Ella Sings Gershwin. “Larkins said he strongly believed that piano accompaniment alone would best serve the singer’s extraordinary talents,” NPR wrote in 2008. “She just loved singing with Ellis,” producer Milt Gabler said in 1990. The result revealed that Fitzgerald—a three-octave dynamo—was just as brilliant, maybe even more so in this format. The Gershwin album did so well that Fitzgerald reunited with Larkins for a second album in 1954, Songs In A Mellow Mood, which consisted of a variety of iconic Great American Songbook standards. Fitzgerald found massive success with her signature series of lush, orchestral Song Book releases, but throughout her long and illustrious career, she would occasionally return to the intimate duet format.

While she sprinkled 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Song Book and 1957’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Song Book with a couple piano duets, 1960’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings Songs From Let No Man Write My Epitaph, featuring songs from the film she appeared in as a pianist-singer, was her third full album accompanied only by piano, this time played by Paul Smith. In 1964, she performed a ravishing rendition of “Somewhere In The Night” with pianist Tommy Flanagan live at the French Riviera which was later issued on the 1964 live album, Ella at Juan-Les-Pins. Fitzgerald’s final major collaboration with a piano player was Ella and Oscar, a 1975 duet with the revered Oscar Peterson, who she had worked with on and off for more than two decades.

The Complete Piano Duets sequences each track in the chronological order it was recorded in, forming a miniature crash course on Fitzgerald’s various eras. You can drop in on her early sessions with Larkins (“Someone To Watch Over Me,” “But Not For Me,” “I’ve Got a Crush On You,”) hear her and Paul Smith tackle Cole Porter (“Miss Otis Regrets”) and music from the gritty 1960 crime drama Let No Man Write My Epitaph (“Black Coffee,” “Angel Eyes,” “I Cried For You”), drop in on her and Tommy Flanagan at a 1964 French gig (“Somewhere In The Night”) and revisit inspired 1975 duets with Oscar Peterson from the third act of her career (“Mean to Me,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” “April In Paris”).

As Friedwald writes in the liner notes, “Fitzgerald was so great at everything–especially scatting and swinging–that it tended to overshadow her ballad singing. Yet, as any one of the 43 tracks on this collection makes clear, Ella Fitzgerald was a nonpareil singer of love songs, a balladeer par excellence. Like her closest colleagues, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday, Fitzgerald could get deep into not just the words but the inner meaning of a song and bring out the profound truths that the lyricist had in mind all along.”

Billy Joel said, “The best singers are interpreters.”  Ella proves that she may have no equal in that category. That’s why she is universally hailed as the greatest jazz singer of all time. This is Ella at her most vulnerable and intimate best.

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