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Ella 101: Blue Skies (Day 12 of 101)

May 6, 2018

My favorite Ella Fitzgerald recording, a spectacular track recorded March 18, 1958 for The Irving Berlin Songbook, then--amazingly--cut from the record! This didn't see daylight till the following year's Get Happy.

Here, conductor Paul Weston drops Ella in front of a big band filled out with a number of her regular studio backers (including frequent collaborator Harry "Sweets" Edison on solo trumpet) and provides a jazzy, wide-open arrangement as a vehicle for perhaps the greatest scat solo she ever laid down in a studio setting, a dazzling flight over two and a half full choruses.

Play this through a few times and really dig into what she does here. Weston's dramatic, extended intro introduces Ella at a high note, weaving around the chords with stunning clarity. When the lyrics come in, she sings the first verse almost completely straight, then begins adding little embellishments at the second verse.

This approach is what makes Ella's catalogue one of the best ways to learn the Great American Songbook AND learn to understand jazz: she typically serves the melody directly one time through, and then shows you what a creative approach can do with it after that.

At the scat break, she starts small, developing one simple melodic idea and slowly teasing it upward, stuttering, cooing, caressing, leaning way into the tension in the song's structure. She sings behind the beat, adding to the tension, and stretches out notes while slowly pulling them upward, driving the intensity. She very astutely uses each bridge as a tension release, backing off the intensity and jumping upward into a sunnier tone before coiling tighter and tighter around the A section again.

Between all this, she bounces around between snatches of bebop phrasing and saloon blues lines, continually discovering and playing on new ideas. She throws in a handful of intentionally dissonant notes, briefly flirts with double time, hisses at one point when she runs out of syllabic ideas, and even quotes from "Rhapsody in Blue" and Wagner's "Wedding March."

It comprises very nearly the entirety of her almost three-octave range (the average range of an operatic soprano is two octaves; Ella was an untrained mezzo, and a range that wide is extremely rare among female singers), from a very low note at the close of the intro to one of her highest recorded notes before the scat chorus builds to a belting, stomping end.

She swings back into the final bridge with verve, a big smile, and a slight rasp in her voice, with the horns shouting behind her, and then Weston lets them drop away for Ella to put an a cappella button on the song to bring it home.

It's a superstar arrangement by a tasteful, intuitive writer who knew that when you have the perfect match of talent and tune, you get out of the way and let them shine. Ella smashes it to pieces. The insane level of skill and inherent musical ability she displays here seem otherworldly.

Ella 101 is a daily look at 101 essential recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, who was born 101 years ago this month. Tune in to Equinox, Monday nights from 8 - 11 p.m. on WYSO, to hear Ella and more great jazz with host Duante Beddingfield.