Friday, December 4, 2015

Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, July 1963

My friend and colleague, Dan Nappo, recently drove up to St. Louis and surprised me by bringing me back a copy of Ella and Basie!, a superb album that I heard quite a bit growing up but that, for some strange reason, never became a part of my jazz collection—until now. Dan's thoughtful gift has given me the chance to listen to it once again all these years later, which made me realize what a fantastic record it is, undoubtedly one of the high points in the long careers of both Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. The high-powered pairing of the vocal jazz diva and the perfectly oiled swing machine commanded by Basie was caught on tape by Verve Records owner, Norman Granz, over two sessions held in July 1963, and at that time, the band featured such outstanding musicians as trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonists Urbie Green and Benny Powell, reedmen Frank Foster and Frank Wess, drummer Sonny Payne, and trusty guitarist Freddie Green. As if that weren't enough, Quincy Jones was at the helm and provided all the charts, and from the outset, it became clear that the emphasis would be on solid swing rather than slow numbers. As a matter of fact, even the few ballads we find among the 12 selections on the original LP have a certain sexy bounce to them—"My Last Affair" is a good example of this—and on one, "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Basie contributes to the dreamy atmosphere by switching to organ.

Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.
But we mustn't forget that this is a meeting between two giants of rhythm, and so the repertoire has been chosen accordingly. Ella had introduced "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" when she cut it for Decca with the Ink Spots in the mid 1940s, but this version with the Basie band is the polar opposite of the earlier recording, allowing Ella to swing freely, as she does on many other tracks, like "Tea for Two," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," and "Ain't Misbehavin'." Quincy Jones understood the Basie outfit perfectly, so his arrangements spotlight the amazing musicianship of the orchestra as a whole, and some of the numbers become vehicles for Ella's exciting scatting. That is the case of "Honeysuckle Rose," "Them There Eyes," and "Satin Doll," on which Ella's scatted contributions turn her into yet another soloist within the band. Both Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" and Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings" find Ella swinging at her most elegant and sophisticated, and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," with Ella's playful handling of the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields tune, is a fitting finale for a marvelous album. The 1997 digipack CD reissue includes several takes of "My Last Affair" and "Robbins' Nest" (the latter not used on the album) which provide some insight into the recording process. Ella and Basie would meet again a number of times in subsequent years, but this first encounter remains the most satisfying.

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