BUYER BEWARE EDITION: Ella With the London Symphony Orchestra (Verve)
File this under: Bad Ideas That Just Won’t Die.
The record: Ella Fitzgerald With the London Symphony Orchestra. Those familiar with the great jazz singer’s discography know that this particular collaboration never happened when Fitzgerald, one of the all-time great jazz singers, was alive.
The idea: Through the magic of computer software, producers take vocals Fitzgerald recorded in the 1950s and ’60s and surround them with new symphonic arrangements. We’ve seen similar tricks in the past — Natalie Cole used the technology to sing a “duet” with her late father Nat King Cole on “Unforgettable,” and even the Elvis hologram tour was based on the some vocal extraction idea.
This release includes a few of the landmark duets that Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded back in the day; they’re “new and improved” with overheated and abundantly schmaltzy strings. There’s a “new” duet, too — a version of “People Will Say We’re In Love” that features Fitzgerald time-traveling from the great beyond to team up with suave current singer Gregory Porter.
Did these vocal performances, recorded in intimate studios with top-shelf rhythm sections, need to be recontextualized in this way?
More than most styles of music, jazz depends on atmosphere — the “vibe” in the studio, the interaction between musicians, the sometimes vast spaces between the notes. These qualities all get covered up in this chattering update. The new release changes the scale on which Ella Fitzgerald is singing: It transforms earnest and intimate small-group sessions into a large-forces spectacle, a feast of oversized pasted-on orchestral accompaniment.
The team of producers and arrangers started with a winning hand, works that are already acknowledged as classics and were complete in every way when initially released. The orchestral backing that’s been added that at times registers as downright intrusive. The extra layers add nothing to the music — they’re like expensive drapery in an already gaudy room. The orchestra sounds competent, but it occupies so much sonic territory, it actually detracts from what Fitzgerald and the musicians are doing. It turns a totally natural live-in-the-studio performance into a contrivance on wheels.
The mandate for this project, part of a Fitzgerald Centennial celebration, was probably to “enhance” these recordings in ways that might make them accessible to modern ears. That’s an understandable objective — given that a once-towering legend like Ella Fitzgerald now registers as a marginal figure, a player on the deep periphery.
This project won’t help the effort. It winds up trampling her legacy instead.
And that’s not all: Ella with the LSO also does some career damage to the musicians who were essential to the original recordings. The album features two tracks that were recorded in 1956 for the classic Ella & Louis pairing featuring Louis Armstrong. Though one piece opens with a tasty jazz guitar flourish, and there’s some smart piano commentary running in the background of both, the musicians who participated — such jazz luminaries as guitarist Herb Ellis, pianist Oscar Peterson, and bassist Ray Brown — are not credited.
That’s right, the players whose surefooted sense of swing provided memorable foundation for the original classic records and this flourish-filled LSO “update” are totally anonymous in the new package. This is dismaying for multiple reasons, not least because Fitzgerald — who was married to Ray Brown for years — was known to be a champion of musicians, who understood that the spell she cast was dependent on what was going on behind her. She gave everybody props in live performance, and she did so with an effusive spirit that conveyed true appreciation.
The omission of names on the credits might seem like a small thing in this age of streaming, when detective work is required to figure out who’s doing what on any and every record. Here, it registers as an arrogant conceptual disconnect: The brainiac producers and musicians involved in the “new” material are all identified, but the musicians who built the framework on which the new material is based are invisible.
To undo this tragic mess and experience how sublime Ella Fitzgerald could be, start by consulting the track listing of this project. Pick a tune — like, say, the duet with Armstrong on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Then go find the original recording (that one’s on the first Ella & Louis album) and listen intently, so as to pick up the nuances of the room and the congenial air of the rhythm section. Just after Ella and Louis have finished singing, there comes a wonderful moment of spontaneity. Preparing to take a solo, Armstrong gives quick dap to the rhythm section before he starts: “Awww, swing it boys.” And they do, with great joy.
Armstrong’s words are there on the LSO version. But the swing is hard to hear, because immediately after Armstrong’s quip, the violins come charging in, playing a dismal little placeholder of a phrase that proclaims “Have no fear, the strings are here!” It’s ham-fisted accompaniment and it adds absolutely nothing. It doesn’t swing. Take that goop away from the tracks, and (surprise, surprise!) what’s left is the sound of some all-time great singers and instrumentalists, working live in the studio in 1956, creating a clear, simple, infectious magic. No help from an orchestra is needed.