Definitively proves Fitzgerald to be a masterful interpreter while imbuing her performances with stunning vocal nuances.
The Complete Piano Duets collects all of Ella Fitzgerald’s piano-and-vocal-only performances from the 1950s on Verve through her 1970s for Pablo. Often hailed as the First Lady of Jazz, Fitzgerald tends to be known more, particularly during this period, for her larger ensemble recordings, scatting and effortless, pure vocals. Unlike some of her contemporaries – namely Billie Holiday – Fitzgerald isn’t generally recognized for her emoting or interpretations of songs. In other words, she tends to be revered for her virtuosity more so than her ability to truly inhabit a song the way Holiday could. But taken all together, The Complete Piano Duets helps to correct this misconception, definitively proving Fitzgerald to be a masterful interpreter, capable of just as much emotion as Holiday, while imbuing her performances with stunning vocal nuances.
The set’s first eight tracks represent a resequenced Ella Sings Gershwin, her debut 10-inch platter, in which she took some of her first recorded stabs at the Great American Songbook via dedicated songwriter series alongside pianist Ellis Larkins. The shuffled sequence is notable for the fact that The Complete Piano Duets works in a purely chronological order, beginning with these 1951 recordings and, more specifically, “Looking for a Boy.” More so than the bulk of the set, this particular recording references more of the style for which Fitzgerald has long been known and revered, with Larkins playing a jaunty, lightly swinging piano behind Fitzgerald’s swooping reading of the melody.
As an interpreter, Fitzgerald hits her stride with “How Long Has This Been Going On?” her voice quavering as much with her tightly controlled vibrato as the emotional heft of the lyrics themselves. Given the pure timbre of her voice, she comes off as sounding like Holiday were the latter’s voice sanded down and stripped of its affectations, leaving only the inherent emotional resonance. Once she lands on this approach, she manages to carry it through the remainder of the Gershwin recordings, delivering a tender read of “But Not For Me.” It’s a far cry from the more bombastic recordings for which she would later be known, but helps illustrate the depth of her skill as a true artist.
The Complete Piano Duets then continues with selections from Fitzgerald’s 1955 LP (again with Larkins), Songs in a Mellow Mood. It’s an appropriate title and one that could’ve easily been coopted for a secondary title for this set, Fitzgerald sounding even more comfortable with her accompanist as they delve deeper into the Great American Songbook. On “I’m Glad There Is You,” she bends and stretches the melody, allowing each note to fully resonate, each syllable delivered with a studied care and attention to phrasing. Indeed, she sounds almost as though she’d cut her teeth emulating crooners like Bing Crosby both in her ability to reckon with a microphone and rely on phrasing and dynamics to bend and shape the melody. Set lower in her range, “I’m Glad There Is You” offers a fine example of Fitzgerald stellar control.
“Lush Life” finds her paired for with Oscar Peterson – a legend in his own right – and pulled from her Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. Given the chronological nature of the program, you can begin to hear the maturity settling into her voice by the time of this 1957 recording. She has settled into the more familiar Fitzgerald timbre, the purity for which she’s long been revered on fine display. Given Peterson’s sympathetic accompaniment, his own phrasing dancing with hers, it’s little surprise that, in the waning years of her career, she’d seek him out once more.
Here she once again takes on “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Where before her voice held the sheen of youth, this 1975 date shows the passage of time and years of experience between the two recordings as her voice has settled into a smoky alto, while her phrasing is far more jazz-informed than on those of her earliest recordings. There’s also a witty rapport between the two titans on the six tracks pulled from Ella and Oscar that close out the set. Where the earlier recordings felt much more formal and chart-based, these sessions feel more like a low-key jam session between old friends, with Fitzgerald deploying her trademark scat-singing and Peterson dancing all over the keys. It’s a joy to hear them playing off one another in this manner and a fine way to close out this thoroughly enjoy examination of Fitzgerald’s more restrained, nuanced vocal performances.