April 25, 2017

She Could Sing the Telephone Book

Today is the one hundredth birthday of vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. When jazz critics debate the superlative jazz singers, they start with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, then move on to everyone else. Ella has always been number one on my personal list. She offered what I wanted in a jazz singer: an impeccable sense of swing, respect for the composer’s melody, and emotion tempered in measured amounts.
In 1999 I had the good fortune to interview pianist Paul Smith in Los Angeles. He cited his time as Ella Fitgzerald’s accompanist as a career highlight:
Paul Smith, in 1999
MR:         Tell me about working with Ella if you don’t mind.
PS:         That was a total delight. Musically you can’t beat it. I mean it spoiled you for most other singers. She was such an easy person to play for. I mean that was a case, I mean when she’s scatting, you play one-fifteenth of what you’re capable of playing. We did one album together, which I bought three or four copies of for posterity for my family and everything, and it’s called “The Intimate Ella,” and it’s just piano and her.
And it’s the one album where nobody plays choruses. I mean most, I’d say 99% of her albums, she was the band singer. The band played 16 bars, or if it was done with Oscar or Joe Pass or whoever, I mean they played choruses and they played behind her, and it was kind of like a coordinated thing between them but it wasn’t really her album. And this one, she loved to sing ballads. And I don’t think she had ever done a complete ballad album, she always ended up having to scat or having to do swinging things. So we did like 15 tunes, all ballads. And she was at the height of her career at that time. And I said, “I’m going to play four bars, and you sing. There’s no piano choruses, nobody else, this is just you, you just do what you want to do.” And it turned out to be — I mean it’s a singer’s tour de force. Every singer should listen to that whole album. That’s where the statement came from she could sing the telephone book and make it sound good. Because she did all the tunes that people have trouble with — “Melancholy Baby,” “Who’s Sorry Now,” and the “Black Coffee,” “One for the Road.” It’s just a beautiful album, not because I’m on it but just from the singing standpoint she was exquisite and singing just what she wanted to sing. She didn’t want to do any scat, didn’t want any tunes where she had to ad lib. She did her little ad libs, which she does on ballads, but generally it’s straight melody pretty much. And it’s a great album for her.
You can view the full interview with Paul Smith on the Fillius Jazz Archive YouTube Channel.
Here’s a link to “Angel Eyes,” one of the cuts from “The Intimate Ella.”
As a contrast, you may also enjoy this classic performance of Ella scatting on “How High the Moon.”
Happy Birthday, Ella!

April 17, 2017

Junior's Last Gig

When I was a teenager I didn’t know what the word “epiphany” meant, but I experienced a few. One came courtesy of a late night radio station in Rochester, and a recording of Junior Mance’s “Harlem Lullaby.” I wrote about this song and my conversation with Junior in an earlier blog entry here. Junior has remained a personal favorite of mine, and I have had the pleasure of booking him and his trio on a number of occasions.
It saddens me to relate that Junior’s health is in decline as he suffers from dementia. Now at age 88, Junior is cared for by his wife, soul-mate and manager, Gloria Clayborne Mance. Gloria’s tireless efforts on Junior’s behalf have been noticed by documentary filmmakers Jyllian Gunther and Adam Khan, and they are undertaking a project to record Junior and Gloria’s story. It is entitled Sunset and the Mockingbird, and you can click the title to see its trailer.  Their story is reflective of thousands of other narratives across the country as the misfortune of dementia and Alzheimer’s become more prevalent in our aging population.
Documentary films by their very nature are not financed by corporations or movie studios, thus a Kickstarter campaign is underway to raise the necessary funding to complete this worthwhile project. Their goal is to raise $38,000 by the end of April, and they have passed the halfway point. Please consider donating to this worthy cause, both large and small amounts are welcome. You can access the Kickstarter fund drive here.