Never Heard Live Concert of Ella Fitzgerald Surfaces – Backed by Longtime Trio on ‘Lost Berlin Tapes’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The Lost Berlin Tapes were recorded – incredibly in both mono and stereo – at Berlin’s Sportpalast on March 25, 1962 with Ella Fitzgerald bringing her ‘A’ game with her longstanding trio led by pianist Paul Smith, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, and Stan Levey on drums. There was just something magical about Berlin for Ella. In February of 1960, she gave a concert at the Deutschlandhalle, which became one of her best-known and best-selling records, Mack The Knife: Ella in Berlin. The album won her 2 Grammys, it went on to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Two years after that historic concert, Ella returned to the city at the height of her career, midway through her most extensive European tour to date, for this set a month before her 45th birthday. 

These tapes come from impresario and Verve Records founder Norman Granz’s private collection. As Ella’s manager, he had a habit of recording Ella live – sometimes for radio broadcast, sometimes for later release, sometimes just to have. He also had another habit of focusing on his next project rather than harnessing what he had just recorded, thus the tapes being lost. According to the liners, over the years, Grantz slimmed the line-ups down to feature just two or three major artists and, on this tour, he had a group co-led by trumpeter Roy Eldridge (a Granz favorite) and sax legend Coleman Hawkins open the concerts. The second half would begin with Ella’s rhythm section, recently contracted. Then Ella would join them to hold the stage for the next hour or so.  

On this March evening, Ella sang some lesser-known gems as well as the hits. One of those hits was “Mack The Knife.” Ella famously flubbed the lyrics in the known 1960 recording, and two years later, nails them. However, she forgets the name of the town she’s in. On the recording, she charmingly says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m so embarrassed. This is where the first time I sang Mack The Knife and when I got to the part of the town, I couldn’t think of it!” The adoration from the audience remains undiminished, nonetheless. She has them captivated; she would be forgiven almost any misstep.

That unique charm, honesty, and energy are palpable throughout this live recording. She opens with “Cheek To Cheek,” followed by the rarer “He’s My Kind of Boy.” The swinging “Cry Me a River,” “I Won’t Dance” and “and a warm Someone to Watch Over Me” follow. After her scat-heavy salute with “Jersey Bounce,” Ella shifts to a heart-wrenching ballad of the Great American Songbook, “Angel Eyes.” According to Stuart Nicholson in the liners, “It’s quite possibly Ella’s finest ballad performance — and that’s saying something.  But look a little closer. She’s gone from having the audience happily swinging along with her, tapping their feet and popping their fingers on “Jersey Bounce,” to the next number “Angel Eyes” where she’s moved them to tears. That’s special.” Some of her notes on “Angel Eyes” will induce chills and then she follows it with the ridiculously fast tempo “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie!” A bit later Ella delivers a smoldering take on Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” “Summertime,” one of the most covered tunes ever, is a sparkling example of her unparalleled phrasing and ability to dig deep emotively. 

As mentioned this show comprised well-known and obscure American Songbook selections – a remarkable range of tempos, and many tunes with challenging phrasing that would fall flat in the hands of most singers.  Paul Smith observed, “I would advise any singer to listen and see how easy she sang, she didn’t make a lot of work out of it. She sang easily, she loved what she was doing.”  Her musicians and those that knew her well say she came alive when she performed – it was her life and reason for living after coming up through a hardscrabble life in Harlem. And she treated her musicians very well. Looking back on his two years with Ella, Stan Levey said, “With Ella, it was first class all the way. You got paid 52 weeks a year, but you work, what — thirty, thirty-five? What can I say about her singing? She’s like an instrument. Like Charlie Parker without a horn. Incredible sound, incredible interpretation of a lyric, incredible phrasing. And a really, really nice girl.” (Frank R. Hayde, “Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight)

As we know, Ella is considered the best female jazz singer of all time. If you have not paid attention to her before, and even if you have, check out this surprisingly brilliant recording of Ella at her peak. Interestingly, and in a related way one of today’s top jazz vocalists, Cecile McLorin Salvant who has been credited numerous times as a successor to Ella’s vocal legacy recorded a video based on “Taking A Chance On Love.”  While learning of these new live tracks while sheltering at home, Cécile, who is a visual artist as well, animated a full-length music video for her first time.The video was released on September 16th.

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