American classics by Harold Arlen from Ella Fitzgerald
I’m probably not going to introduce anyone to Ella Fitzgerald today. The First Lady of Song is well known and widely beloved. Famous for the liquid sheen of her voice, her precise diction while singing, and her amazing improvisational scat abilities, Ella is a must in any music collection, in my opinion. So hopefully, you already have some Ella.
I do want to turn your attention to a particular gem of hers that is perhaps my favorite Ella Fitzgerald album. In 1961 Ella released a collection of songs by the great American composer Harold Arlen, who wrote over 500 songs in his life. You know many of them: the music from The Wizard of Oz, for example.
The album is unimaginatively titled “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook.” All the creativity went into the music. Ella worked with arranger/composer/trumpeter Billy May (who among other projects composed the TV theme songs for The Green Hornet and Batman). Sadly, it was the only time the two worked together, but May created inspiring arrangements that made the songs swing and showcased Ella’s amazing voice. Here are just a handful of the winners on this disc.
- Blues in the Night – I love the horn arrangement in this version because they don’t jump up and give you a black eye right at the start. They lay back and leave it to Ella to knock you flat for a while, which she does, before they come in with some great accents and soloing.
- Let’s Fall in Love – This might be my favorite Harold Arlen song. It’s just as smooth and sweet as frosting and this arrangement in particular is jazzy. Ella is, of course, flawless and captures the feeling perfectly.
- Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – I have heard many covers of this song, but I like Ella’s best. The band lays back for her but Ella puts in an athletic performance, bending notes, playing tricks with the melody, and embellishing notes with lots of quick vibrato. It’s beautiful.
- That Old Black Magic – Ella rocks this song and the horns play everything from cool accents to a great countermelody.
- I’ve Got the World on a String – I’ve heard some peppy versions of this song. In this version, the intro is up-tempo, but she takes the song way down and croons it at a deliberate, bluesy pace.
- Ac-Cent-Thu-Ate the Positive – Ella’s joyful delivery was made for an optimistic song like this one. She absolutely makes it her own.
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