CD Review: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME: Ella Fitzgerald with the London Symphony Orchestra (Verve)

by Tony Frankel on September 22, 2017

in CD-DVD

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ELLA REDUX

When a new Ella Fitzgerald CD arrived, I ripped it open and started listening to what I believed was a re-mastered version of an album that I didn’t know existed (I own almost 30 of her recordings). The first track of Someone to Watch over Me (on CD and streaming September 29, 2017) was the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard, “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! (1943). I immediately recognized her vocals, however, from her 1954 Decca LP Songs in a Mellow Mood—one of her best—a mono collection of mostly show tunes and ’30s’ pop ballads accompanied by the sensitive and elegant pianist, Ellis Larkins. Soon—in the vein of daughter Natalie singing with deceased pop Nat “King” Cole on “Unforgettable”—Ella is paired with Gregory Porter, the 45-year-old singer/songwriter/actor who is very much alive. His old-school charm and her light, bouncy swing are an irresistible combination.

Ella’s feathery swinging touch is instantly recognizable: her acumen, heart, and technical finesse—that subtlety in deftness and taste—combined with her jazzy roots in bebop and novelty, and her skill in using her voice as if it were an instrument, made her the foremost jazz singer in the history of the genre (she also made her mark as one of the greatest scat singers in jazz, but there’s no hot jazz in this new collection).

The next selection, the title track, was also from an Ella/Larkins mono output, Ella Sings Gershwin (1950), and Ella sounds as if she just recorded her session yesterday, but as with the first cut, she’s now backed up by all new arrangements featuring the London Symphony Orchestra. Producers Juliette Pochin and James Morgan have culled through some Decca and Verve classics, concentrating on those which were mono with bare-bones backup, such as the Oscar Peterson quartet (including Ella’s then-husband Ray Brown on bass) on the Ella/Satchmo albums, and added new backgrounds.

The gentle, lush ubiquitous strings are decent accompaniment, and never overpower the first lady of song. It’s a remarkable achievement of modern technology. Similar to Ella’s Songbook Series (from which we get “I Get a Kick out of You”), her voice is front and center, not the orchestra; which tells me that the team of arrangers (Pochin, Morgan, and Jorge Calandrelli) truly wish to honor Ella (and this is the year of her centennial birthday).

The 12-tracks include the playful “Let’s Do It… Let’s Fall in Love”, a wry tinkling piano on “Bewitched”, the gloriously romantic “These Foolish Things”, and the amazing Errol Garner/Johnny Burke classic “Misty” (originally recorded in 1959 with Paul Smith on piano). Each one with the Orchestra’s full sound. But the harp arpeggios, horns, harpsichord, xylophone, drums and all those strings continually border the syrupy feel of Richard Carpenter more than Nelson Riddle, and on two duets with Louis Armstrong, the arrangements seem particularly unsuited for this project: When Satchmo growls, “Swing it, boys” on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, the command goes unheeded.

Regardless of how ultimately safe this venture feels, the final track truly does highlight Ella as she beautifully purrs “With a Song in My Heart.” That’s what it’s all about.

Someone to Watch over Me
a Verve Label Group recording; UMG Recordings, Inc.
12 tracks | 43:52
release date: September 29, 2017
available on iTunes and Amazon

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