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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

May 2014: My Favourite Singer – And Why

I’m always a bit uncomfortable with this business of having ‘favourites’. When it comes to music, it seems too obvious that different artists have entirely different agendas, and can’t be compared. For instance, if you ask me who my favourite piano player is, I could probably, with a lot of thought, come up with a list of about a dozen, but to narrow it down any further involves too much comparing of apples to oranges, as the saying goes. Come to think of it, an apple and an orange are at least both fruits, and roughly the same shape. Comparing, say, Teddy Wilson to Cecil Taylor, is like comparing an apple to an aardvark.


Having said all that, I confess that my favourite singer, hands down, of all time, is Ella Fitzgerald. I’m a subscriber to Jazz On The Tube - they send you a jazz video every day, and usually it’s just one song, but last week they posted a whole live set of Ella which was so utterly brilliant from start to finish that I swear to God it left me with tears in my eyes.


What is it about Ella? Well, there’s the sheer beauty of the sound of her voice. Then there’s her tremendous technique and her range – by which I don’t mean just the ability to hit a lot of notes, but to create many different colours, attitudes, moods, and shades of meaning. And there’s her endlessly creative musicianship; I never get tired of listening to her because I never know what she’s going to do next. Name any song, and I’d be curious to know what Ella would do with it. With, say, Billie Holiday, I know she’ll just do her Billie Holiday thing – that thing she always does.


There have been more than a few debates about who is ‘The Queen Of Jazz’. I can’t deny that Billie had something very distinctive, and appealing to a lot of people. I like some of her early recordings quite a lot. It’s often said about Billie that she didn’t have much of a voice, but she used it in such a sophisticated way that she transcended her limitations, to the point of achieving some kind of paradoxical ultimate freedom. I buy that up to a point, but the little mannerisms she uses over and over again – the way she half-speaks a tune as though she can’t be bothered to sing it, and the little hiccup she does when she approximates a note without actually hitting it – can get on my nerves. By contrast Ella will sing the tune and show you how beautiful it really is; and when she departs from it (or scat-sings, which she does better than anyone) it’s because she has great ideas and the chops to execute them.


I sometimes wonder if this debate goes to the heart of why different people are moved by different musicians – especially singers, since we are, I think, more likely to respond viscerally to a human voice than to an instrument. Some people love Billie’s late recordings, when her voice was not much more than a haunted croak. It’s the tragic sound of someone being consumed by all the bad stuff in her life. But Ella had a rough life too: abandoned by her father, abused by her stepfather, her mother dying young, being put in an orphanage from which she ran away and lived on the street. When you listen to Ella you hear someone rising above the bad stuff and becoming a great artist. I always feel there’s something a bit creepy about finding her ‘too good’ and preferring the sound of self-destruction.


Anyway, I’ve been on a little Ella binge, which I can recommend to anyone – you can get as high as a kite without getting a hangover or gaining a pound.


ELLA FITZGERALD: The Harold Arlen Songbook


When Ella recorded The Cole Porter Songbook in 1956, LPs were still quite new, and it was a novel idea for a jazz singer to make two whole LPs of classic songs by one composer. It’s worth pointing out, too, that although that composer was certainly influenced by jazz, he was not a jazz musician, but very much of the musical theatre world - something which would have seemed a bigger deal at the time. (I find it quite funny that Porter himself didn’t seem to know what to make of the album, and complimented Ella only on her diction). It’s also worth pointing out that since these songs came from musicals, they were written for a wide range of different characters and voices; so for one singer to cover a whole lot of them was a considerable technical challenge. If that’s not apparent, it’s largely because it takes an Ella Fitzgerald to make it sound easy.


The Porter project was a big success and was followed by seven more Songbooks, of which the Arlen is my favourite by a narrow margin. For one thing, I’m a huge Arlen fan; he’s the songwriter’s songwriter, and if you don’t know the name, you certainly know a bunch of his songs, even if you thought they were by his mentor, George Gershwin.


The two songwriters had plenty in common – both sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants in New York and in love with jazz, their styles are quite similar, but whereas Gershwin was more adventurous in a quasi-symphonic mode (e.g. Rhapsody In Blue) Arlen was technically a more adventurous songwriter. There’s also a deeper strain of melancholy in Arlen, and a deeper feeling for the blues. While Gershwin famously had one foot on Broadway and the other in Carnegie Hall, Arlen was more at home in Harlem, where he hung out with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway and wrote songs for revues at the Cotton Club. Still, the sunny, charismatic Gershwin continues to overshadow Arlen, who was publicity-shy and a manic-depressive - which might account for such songs as (on the one hand) Get Happy and Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive and (on the other) Stormy Weather and Ill Wind. (I was going to list a few more Arlen classics, but there are just too many; Google him, you’ll be amazed).


Much of the Gershwin Songbook is also, of course, sublime, but for me the Nelson Riddle arrangements sometimes strain just a bit too hard to be beautiful and important, whereas on the Arlen set Billy May gets it just right, with plenty of class but no shortage either of raunchiness and humour. May is best known for his work with Frank Sinatra, but I think he surpasses himself here.


Of course, there’s also the Duke Ellington Songbook . . .


ELLA FITZGERALD:Twelve Nights In Hollywood


I’ve written before about how most singers dislike their own voices or at least, find it incredibly hard to be objective about them. Believe it or not, Ella was no exception. In the studio she was never sure if her performance was good enough, and would always want to try ‘one more take’. Meanwhile the producer and recording engineer would be sitting in the control room with their mouths hanging open because the first take had been just about the greatest thing they’d ever heard.


We live in an era when convincing-sounding vocals can be pasted together on a laptop, and even ‘fixed’ in a live show. But at the time this live set was recorded, great singers were known for being great singers because they were great singers. Their records were understood to be the next best thing to hearing them live, and Ella was incredible live. She was looser, wilder, took more chances, belted more, always seemed to be having a great time, and yet never sang a bad note, ever.


There are quite a few great live Ella recordings, but these, from the Crescendo Club in Los Angeles in 1961-62, were only recently discovered and released by Verve as a 4-CD boxed set. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make that investment, so I foolishly bought the Best Of; but that has a tremendous, hard-swinging version of Take The A Train which is not even included in the boxed set. To have so much great stuff that you can just throw something like this away is mind-boggling.


One last thing about Ella. However much her voice matured, there was something fresh and girlish in it that never really left her. Here, it’s evident not only in her singing but in her infectious, spontaneous laughter in between songs. She was in her mid-40s and already revered as The First Lady Of Song, but she sounds like a giggly schoolgirl who can’t quite believe she’s getting away with it. It really doesn’t get much better than this.