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Critics' Choice
VERVE CELEBRATES ELLA AT 100
4/28/17

Catching their breath after attempting to scat their way through “Lullaby of Birdland” are, from left, Verve Label Group CEO and President Danny Bennett, Commissioner  Julie Menin, Tony Bennett, and the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation’s Fran Morris-Rosman and Richard Rosman.

Tony Bennett helped the City of New York declare 4/25 Ella Fitzgerald Day at a ceremony on at the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. Bennett saluted his fellow New Yorker Ella on what would have been her 100th birthday with “Our Love Is Here To Stay”;  vocal students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts sang an Ella fave “Blue Skies.”

Danny Bennett took over Verve a year ago and a Fitzgerald reissue project with Universal Music Enterprises is among its first major vault excavation. “I am truly humbled to now be the keeper of the flame and contributing to shine a well-deserved light on artists of the magnitude of Ella Fitzgerald,” he said.

The jewel in the initial 100th celebration releases is the six-LP box Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbooks. With arrangements by Nelson Riddle, who wraps Ella in layers of comfort, the set comprises recordings made in nine sessions between January and late August 1959. The set, originally released as a five-LP set, was the ambitious follow-up to her songbook series that covered Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin.

The sound of the LPs is the sort that makes vinyl aficionados and audiophiles swoon—a properly placed emphasis on the vocals, a precision in the reproductions of the strings and brass, especially in the lower and higher registers, and a feeling of air in the performance. Not only are these among Ella's best studio performances, the audio quality of the originals is a gold standard as well. 

This is not jazzy Ella. There is an allegiance to melody and lyrics, swinging in spots such as the “That Certain Feeling,” “A Foggy Day,” "Our Love is Here to Stay" and “The Man I Love.” At its best—which is 90% of these cuts—the set is a divine example of elegance and grace.

Even when some of the performances are loaded with formality and an emphasis on enunciation, they often still manage to shine: Her “Someone to Watch Over Me,” "Slap That Bass"  and “Bidin’ My Time,” to cite three examples, are carefully sung though stylistically rich and affecting whether they be uptempo and comic or heartfelt balladry. 

And when the clanky “The Real American Folk Song” comes on, sounding out of place in this collection, its saving grace is in the revelation that Ella can make any lyric palatable.    

The package, which includes prints of Bernard Buffet’s six illustrations that were used as album covers in the original 1959 release, features a book that dives deep into the details about Gershwins’ work, how this set of songs came to be and how the brothers worked together. Unfortunately, beyond personnel listings, the book lacks information on the Fitzgerald-Riddle dynamic. They’re story, as they say, is in the grooves.