Ella Fitzgerald ‘The Complete Birdland Broadcasts’ 2CD (Essential Jazz Classics) 4/5

How many epic concerts from the distant past have never been recorded and thus remain solely in the memories of the few who witnessed the musicians that day? This is where this kind of unreleased series of concerts acquires the status of an important historical document. The generous timing (both CDs weigh in at over seventy-five minutes) captures a then young Ella on no less than four separate occasions at the legendary Birdland venue between December 1951 and the summer of 1952 while she was still recording for the Decca label. Moreover, they find the singer accompanied by some of the very greatest accompanists, with pianist Hank Jones present throughout, but with the rest of the pared down rhythm section varying between Ray Brown and Nelson Boyd on bass, and Roy Haynes and Charlie Smith on drums. Interestingly, the repertoire hints at what was to follow when she moved to Verve to record the seminal series of composer led albums. Here, she interprets the songs of various members of the Great American Songbook, from the Gershwin brothers through to Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. While there is a degree of overlap with some songs receiving two separate treatments, in the case of Ella they were always likely to be treated to a subtly different reading, and there are some fascinating songs covered that are more usually associated with other singers’ interpretations.
Where the listener is in for a treat is in hearing Fitzgerald adding lyrics to instrumental jazz numbers that have become classics, deploying her favourite scats and ad-libs to stunning effect at times. These include, ‘Jumping with Symphony Sid (Lester Young)’, ‘Flyin’ home’ (Lionel Hampton), guitarist Charlie Christian’s, ‘Air mail special’, and, in a gentler mood, Duke’s very own, ‘In a mellow tone’. Both Lorez Alexandria and Sarah Vaughan were noted for their version of, ‘Thou swell’, but Ella was fully capable of offering a strong rival take. As a young singer making her way up, Ella was fully prepared to take risks and so it proves on, ‘How high the moon’, where the initially relaxed tempo then shifts up a couple of gears to medium-quick.
Surprisingly good quality sound from the radio broadcasts, with just the occasional shift in tone, but both the vocalist and instrumentalists are clearly identifiable. New liner notes are supplied by Matias Rinar. In a year where the later Verve recordings of Ella Fitzgerald have received a major re-issue campaign, these slightly earlier sides cast valuable light on her vocal prowess.

Tim Stenhouse