Saturday, November 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook" by Ella Fitzgerald

I had read that one of either Blonde on Blonde or Freak Out! was the first double-album of the rock era, and somehow I convinced myself that meant 'the first double-album ever', at least twelve inches in size and 33 rpm in speed.

Of course, that turns out not to be the case at all - there are several outside of rock that precede it. This current two-hour double-record set is only the first of a lengthy series of releases, some of which were as much as four-disc boxed sets. It's the fact that this particular Cole Porter volume is the first, from 1956, that made me want to take it on.

So what is it? Well, it's Norman Granz, owner of Verve Records, trying to make a 'statement'. And a great one it was too - that the USA had produced a handful of songwriters, working primarily in the medium of stage musicals, every bit the equal of the revered composers of the European classical tradition. Working together with the amazing vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, he set out to enshrine these composers in a series of 'songbook' releases, that with varying degrees of comprehensiveness, tried to 'catalogue' their works.

So this is a 'cover album', really - tribute album, in modern parlance. But it was a major statement at the time, both in that it was the first time a project of this magnitude was attempted and also in that Fitzgerald and conductor/arranger Buddy Bregman put a hell of a lot of fine detail work into these performances. At 32 tracks and almost two hours, this is epic in side, but there's never a workaday feel. You can tell sincere effort was put into every one of these recordings, and the result is frequently stunning.

But the nature of the project causes me to reconsider the entire thing I do here: to what extent is my job to critique Cole Porter's compositions and to what extent Ella Fitzgerald's performances? Should a lacklustre take on a genius song be included above a gripping recording of a run-of-the-mill tune? And furthermore, while the 32-track double gains a certain amount of gravitas and authority from its sheer bulk (while no means a comprehensive take on the prolific Porter's work, it's certainly more than a mere overview), how can I make my truncated single-disc be anything more than merely 'a dozen Porter songs assembled more or less randomly', or even worse 'the most ubiquitous dozen of Porter's stand-bys assembled for the millionth time'?

I don't claim to have successfully answered those questions. I would say that I attempted to evaluate Fitzgerald and Bregman, after all the authors of this particular aural document, more than Porter himself, but ultimately I was looking for a cohesive and memorable listening experience, and that quite obviously involves both. Regarding my ultimate tracklist, I think my single-disc plays well, moving through moods much like his stage musicals themselves must have. It's certainly not half of the Verve original - it's a good deal shorter than that. The original is long, not merely eight songs per side but eight frequently extended recordings. Each side is nearly thirty minutes, a rather amazing feat for 1956 unless the discs were either incredibly tinny or incredibly prone to scratching. Me, however, I have an almost superstitious attraction to the 12-track album, and anything more than that would stretch credibility, I think.

The Songbook series continued, but I don't think I will. I've been stepping out of my comfort zone a lot recently, and it's been an enjoyable experience. I enjoyed this album greatly, developing a real respect for Fitzgerald. Porter I was not a stranger to, but I'll freely admit my knowledge of him comes largely from two sources: (a) the 1990s AIDS-benefit project Red Hot + Blue, which offered up at times radical interpretations of Porter classics but which I ate up at the time, and (b) a stretch of time when I listened to a lot of Capitol- and Reprise-era Frank Sinatra. On some level, these two sources constantly informed my understanding and appreciation of what Norman Granz, Buddy Bregman and Ella Fitzgerald put on vinyl an amazing 55 years ago.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook 

Side one
  1. Anything Goes (3:23)
  2. It's Alright with Me (3:09)
  3. Always True to You in My Fashion (2:50)
  4. I Get a Kick Out of You (4:02)
  5. Miss Otis Regrets (3:02)
  6. Love for Sale (5:55)
Side two
  1. You're the Top (3:35)
  2. Too Darn Hot (3:50)
  3. Night and Day (3:06)
  4. So in Love (3:52)
  5. I Love Paris (4:59)
  6. Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye (3:34)

All Through the Night: lose

Fitzgerald, Bregman and Granz get the two-hour epic started with this one, positioning the experience of listening to the album as a 'nighttime' event. I suppose Porter would approve - I don't think he would envision much of his oeuvre as Sunday morning music. This particular piece is no exception, with a sighing sadness built entirely from chromatic descending scales. It's pretty enough, but it doesn't weigh very heavily on the imagination, and having little to say about it is not really a recommendation for its inclusion in my single-length.

Anything Goes: keep (side one, track one)

As is often the case on the Songbook, Fitzgerald includes the 'verse', the introduction to the song which is often removed when sung. It's a bit bizarre, mentioning Plymouth Rock three times in eight lines, but introduces the much-better main part of the song, which makes the point that customs and standards have worsened in the USA. It's hilarious to hear someone grumbling about that in 1934, when the song was written, or in 1956, when Fitzgerald performed it, more evidence that 'the world is going to hell in a handbasket' is a timeless gripe. What makes the song great, and one of the songs most closely associated with Porter, is the ambiguity: Porter's words imply derision, but there's every sense that Porter is not overly upset by the perceived moral degradation. Neither does Fitzgerald, who seems to be having a ball with the song's casual swing, and so do the brass who replace much of the song's lyrics with an exciting instrumental central section. A triumph, all told.

This was maybe the entry I was most ambivalent about, and I'm using it to start off my whole collection (side one, track one). Crazy? Well, mostly it's to start things off playful. Both sides move from playful to serious, which I thought was a good way to progress with this collection. And I'm not saying 'Anything Goes' is exactly a statement of purpose, but it does make an arresting open statement. Even if I don't like the beginning.

Miss Otis Regrets: keep (side one, track five)

Is Cole Porter truly one of the American greats? Well, of course he is - but let's ask it differently; is he one of the greats in the establishment of a musical idiom and mode of expression that could be described as in some core way 'American'? Well, I believe he's that too, and I think this jaw-dropping composition is an excellent example: as cinematic in scope as anything Hollywood spends dozens of millions of dollars making, this ballad tells the story of a young socialite apologetically unable to fulfil her social duties, due to having murdered an ex-lover and having been lynched for it the night before. Dark as tar, then, but possessing a gentle fragility that stands as total odds with the subject matter. Bregman needs nothing more than a piano and a smoky single-spotlight ambiance to wrap around Fitzgerald's hauntingly poetic performance. This is a truly amazing piece of work.

I'm not sure why exactly, but I really wanted this on side one. I think maybe because I knew which song i wanted to end the collection with, which was also slow and haunting but not, well, grisly. I thought these deserved to be removed from each other. I didn't wind up finishing the side with it, and I kind of was thinking that I would, but instead it's next-to-last, track five, on side one.

Too Darn Hot: keep (side two, track two)

What is this song about? Well, it's a quick-stepping piece with a bouncing bassline and strutting brass. And the song is about the effect temperature has on libido? Really? Surprisingly enough, yes, and it's carried off with aplomb. Porter's lyrics are genuinely funny, even as the decades have rolled on. The song is a lot of fun, and Fitzgerald is having a lot of fun singing it, barely even able at times to control herself. Hot indeed.

Both of my sides start light-hearted; seeing how close this comes on the double to 'Anything Goes', perhaps I should have put it on side one as well. But I didn't - for me, it's side two track two, the last whimsical piece before the lights dim.

In the Still of the Night: lose

This Porter composition is the reason why the doo-wop standard you probably start singing in your mind the moment you see this title is spelt 'nite'. That beautiful song is the better of this one, and yet this present recording's intriguing fast-and-slow-at-the-same-time arrangement sits on top of a sturdy melody. There's nothing really bad at all to say about this song or this recording: it's all perfectly good stuff. It doesn't make the cut, but it sits most sadly on the cutting room floor.

I Get a Kick Out of You: keep (side one, track four)

The 'introduction', which lasts forty-five seconds, presents the rather intriguing sound of Fitzgerald accompanied solely by an electric guitar. It's quite pretty, which is good, because the introduction is the low-point of this rather amazing song, which compares the excitement of spending time with an unrequited love interest to other lauded thrills such as champagne, air travel and, rather surprisingly, cocaine. Porter's walking melody is memorable and expressive, and Fitzgerald carries it very well. The arrangement is a touch too lounge, relaxed where it could have had a bit more, ahem, kick. And yet it's all so professionally and expertly done that it seems silly to complain.

I use this song on side one to bridge 'fast and playful' to 'slow and contemplative' - in other words, side one, track four. It's still playful, but in service of genuine romantic love, and the tempo is somewhere between chipper and morose.

Do I Love You?: lose

This song, a series of rhetorical questions built around the titular question, is not overly compelling a melody, the arrangement more or less just sticks to the script, and Fitzgerald embellishes the melody very little indeed. And yet where in most cases such ingredients would imply a sadly run-of-the-mill space-filler, in this case the ingredients are so strong, and Fitzgerald's vocal performance so compelling, that 'sticking to the plot' is more than enough. This is an understated and yet wistfully romantic song, recorded in a version so quintessential that nobody, post-Fitzgerald, has really had anything more to say about it. I don't include it, but that doesn't mean I don't like it.

Always True to You in My Fashion: keep (side one, track three)

For the most part, songs that I knew before listening to this collection have had distinct advantages. It's a prejudice, I suppose, or laziness, unless it's merely that it's Cole Porter's best songs which have been his most famous. In any case, the risk is that I'll excise this collection entirely of its lesser-known numbers, leaving us merely with 'Ella Fitzgerald sings only those most ubiquitous of Cole Porter's songs, which you've no doubt heard sung by a dozen people already'. So let me puff my chest out a bit when I announce that I've fallen head over heels with this charming little obscurity: it's only the best of fun, uptempo and upbeat with cute lyrics, musical quotations from differing sources and an amazing piano line that underpins the titular chorus. Really, it's all about that piano. Whatever it is, though, I love it.

I put this third on side one, third of a three-song set that's kind of coyly 'oh my!' shocking. Both this and 'It's Alright With Me' play around with devotion and cheating, from opposite sides. And they're similar tempos too.

Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love): lose

'It', of course, isn't really 'falling in love', but something more base in nature that also involves two people. Porter giggles like a naughty schoolgirl at his tiny little double-entendres, but what apparently shocked when this song was composed barely rises above Disney level today. This coyness is genuinely charming, but to be honest that's all that really charms in what is otherwise a self-conscious attempt on Porter's part to be too-clever-by-half, listing nationalities and species of animals which copulate, including such eye-rolling examples as 'educated fleas' and 'Lithuanians and Letts'. To her credit, I suppose, Fitzgerald finds the song's exact tone, which is somewhere too far on the spectrum from playful to smarmy.

Just One of Those Things: lose

I don't really know enough about musical theory to pin it down precisely, but I can tell you that what upsets me here in this performance is the rhythm. It's a sturdy composition, expertly performed, but the arrangement has a kind of 'swing' to it that I find rather removes the song's power. I can't quite get into it, which is a pity, as it's a great song. It's a hell of a song, in fact, that ought to roll in its own confident fashion toward the conclusion, but here rather fares like a car with a bent axle. Unfortunately.

Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye: keep (side two, track six)

One of Porter's most gorgeous ballads, and Fitzgerald owns it, with a performance of such performance and grace that it must have changed the minds of dozens of singers who were thinking of taking it on. She doesn't experiment at all with the song, performing it merely as it was written, but performing it with absolute assurance and mastery. 'There's no love song finer', the lyrics go. They might just be right. It's an absolute heart-breaker.

'Goodbye', right? So last song on the album - side two, track six, then, right? Might seem a bit of a cheesy joke, but really - it leaves the album with a sense of termination, but not quite resolution. Keep 'em wanting more, they always say. Oh wait... I'm getting rid of tonnes. Oh well.

All of You: lose

A mere hundred-and-five seconds, short by the standards of the Songbook. And yet, it's mostly just a 'ditty' anyway, fine by any reasonable standards, but not especially memorable. It's a simple game lyrically about how much of a person to love. And yet simplicity is no advantage here, as it's in service of a song with no real depth.

Begin the Beguine: lose

One of Porter's absolute classics down the years, but the one of his classics I'm least attracted to. I get very little out of this composition; it's probably just too closely tied to its era. The 'beguine' is a Caribbean dance style not well evoked, in this arrangement at least. It's tough to walk away from this humming a melody, which ought to be one of the defining qualities of a 'classic'. Fitzgerald and Bregman do just fine for themselves, but in service of what?

Get Out of Town: lose

An attractive torch song, one with a sense of foreboding floating in the air. One is often tempted while listening to these two discs to forget that Porter wrote musicals, and that all of these songs are in service, one way or another, of a plotline. That doesn't always matter, but this time out it does seem to. I feel I'm only getting half the story here, and the result is that this undoubtedly beautiful song remains little more than a mere curio.

I am in Love: lose

Fitzgerald follows this song's gradual upward escalator ride as ably as she can, but apart from the surprising appearance of the word 'cyanide' in a popular song, Porter's composition offers only exactly as much inspiration as its sadly generic title would suggest. It goes on longer than four minutes, which is a long time indeed for a song that fades so readily into the woodwork.

From This Moment On: lose

This could be a showstopping dramatic ballad, all swelling strings and crescendos. But it's played completely differently: light-hearted and strutting. Or 'swinging', of course, as they used to call it back then. A mid-song instrumental break brings Fitzgerald's performance up a step as she spontaneously rewrites the composition and seems constantly an inch removed from breaking out into scat. It's really quite exciting indeed.

I Love Paris: keep (side two, track five)

To my ears, 'I Love Paris' has always seemed to be one of the more minor of Porter's classics, a tourist-board jingle that gets the job done but isn't really worth more than 90 seconds of our time. So what on earth compelled Fitzgerald and Bregman to transform it, of all the possibilities, into a five-minute epic, luxuriously taking its time through a lengthy instrumental middle section and two complete vocal run-throughs? Whatever the underlying logic, the result is amazing, wide-screen cinematic (more so than most of the Songbook) in a way that allows you to just close your eyes and picture the two young émigrés that are the inevitable protagonists of a romantic comedy, falling in love on the romantic streets of Gay Paree.

Content-wise, this song has no right whatsoever to be the 'climax', side two track five, and yet there is is anyway. Why? Well, as much as I've attempted to consider lyrical content while programming my single-disc, ultimately it's mood that matters. This is the other lengthy cinematic showstopper on my disc, near the end of a side. And it fits well between the moody pieces that precede it and the gorgeous goodbye that follows it.

You Do Something to Me: lose

This is one of Porter's sexier songs of seduction, in Bregman's hands a light bounce driven on a prominent upright-bass line with muted horns in the background. The result is coy and flirtatious, a respectful take on a standard so well-known it's difficult to comment on. Good, but not good enough.

Ridin' High: lose

This song was apparently first sung by Ethel Merman, and its brassy swagger is probably better suited to Merman than it is to Fitzgerald. It's not a bad performance, but it fails to convince, at least until two minutes in, when Fitzgerald introduces her own personality to the performance, lightening her touch and playing games with the melody. It becomes a much more attractive effort at this point, but it's too late to save the song.

You'd be So Easy to Love: lose

I suppose I'm just naturally attracted to the ballads. Porter can write a great uptempo song, but it seems that when the mood is taken down a notch or two that he really shines. Take this particular song for example: there isn't even much I can say about it, it's neither better nor worse than a dozen others here, and it's not immediately attention-grabbing. Yet it weaves its own spell, gradually but assuredly, and after hearing it a few times you find yourself quite captivated by the song's beauty and its downcast barroom atmosphere. It truly is lovely, though.

It's Alright with Me: keep (side one, track two)

I first heard this song when I was so young that its moral ambiguities flew entirely over my head and I was left merely confused by the song: is she interested in this guy, or isn't she? Now of course, all these years later it's the bravery of those moral ambiguities that intrigue. Well, that and the fabulous show-stopping arrangement Bregman trots out here, with brass instruments ringing out and exploding all over the place. Fitzgerald seems to appreciate the backdrop and carries her performance off with a very particular panache that suggests she's aware of the problems that potentially result from picking someone up on the 'rebound', the scenario the song describes - aware, but not really all that concerned. She seems merely caught up in the magic of the moment, with the end result that we are as well.

This shares with 'Anything Goes' a certain libertine approach to moral and convention, and also a light-footed uptempo 'good time' feel. I think it works well back-to-back with it, so it's my track two.

Why Can't You Behave?: lose

A pretty ballad with a stately, autumnal mood and with Fitzgerald's curious yawning vocals in a fine performance. It's really quite good stuff, but for one reason or another, it never quite clicks, and five minutes is a long time to devote to a lack of clicking.

What is This Thing Called Love?: lose

An incredibly prominent bassline moves this song along, accompanied primarily by muted brass, which are highlighted on a central instrumental break. The composition isn't up to all that much, though, and the song fades from the memory as soon as it finished.

You're the Top: keep (side two, track one)

This is another list-song, built entirely out of items that Porter would compare a romantic interest to. No Shakespearean 'summer's day', though, as Porter's frequently bizarre (though very much of-their-time) comparisons include Mickey Mouse, Mahatma Gandhi, Jimmy Durante's nose, camembert, cellophane, turkey dinner, and indeed a Shakespearean sonnet. How successful 'you're cellophane' ever was as a pick-up line we'll perhaps never know, but what makes this song charm where 'Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)' fails is in its sincerity, and that's probably to Fitzgerald's credit, as she sounds like she's having a ball here with the silly, playful lyrics and the light touch of the orchestration. Porter wrote for many moods, and Fitzgerald nailed them all, so it's nice to see 'sweet and playful' carried out so well.

My single-disc record is a true record, and to play it as a continuous twelve-song programme is to face the horrid shock when the epic, emotionally rich 'Love for Sale' fades out and this cheery ditty comes on. But there's a gap there - side one ends, and side two begins, and with it (we can think of them as different 'acts') a fresh start. We're back to light-hearted and cheery. Plus, it's 'the top', right?

Love for Sale: keep (side one, track six)

Like 'I Love Paris', Fitzgerald and Bregman are clearly aiming for a cinematic feel here. Obviously this is from a musical - but close your eyes, and that smoky sax and deliberately walking bassline evoke everything you need. A hymn to prostitution? Absolutely - a risqué proposition for 2011, to say nothing of the better part of a century that has elapsed since Porter wrote it. But Fitzgerald puts every conflicting emotion into her vocal performance, and the result is enchanting. Six minutes might seem more than strictly required for a pre-rock song, but you don't find that it drags on at all. It's a bit of a grower, but in the end it's truly a great track.

My emotions for this song really changed as I progressed with this project, to the point that by the end I'd given it pride of place as a dramatic finale for the end of act one.

It's De-Lovely: lose

This odd ditty is based entirely around words (both real and imagined) that begin with the letters 'del-', a bizarre conceit to be sure, but one topped by the clunky introduction that has Fitzgerald singing 'while I crucify the verse'. Not much of it makes sense, and it doesn't leave the most pleasant of tastes in the mouth, as well as Fitzgerald sings it.

Night and Day: keep (side two, track three)

One of Porter's best-ever songs in one of the best-ever interpretations. So monotonous that most people have historically had no idea what to do with it, the jungle-music introduction in Fitzgerald's capable hands becomes the steamy heart of the song, tympani and pizzicato strings building an amazing tension that only breaks as the song crashes into its singable main chorus. When it comes, the jungle's overbearing leaves part to make way for a 1950s ballroom of an enchanting sophistication. The whole thing is quite gorgeous, really.

Like 'I Get a Kick Out of You', this is a 'bridge song', moving from uptempo dance tunes to moodier fare. Of course, this song inverts it, starting out heavily atmospheric before picking up a danceable beat. But it never really cuts a rug - it's a midtempo piece, and so as track three on side two it straddles the lightness of the first two tracks with the darkness of the final three. Night and day, in other words, or more exactingly day and then night.

Ace in the Hole: lose

This recording clocks in at less than two minutes, which on the Songbook is a decent indication of how seriously it was taken. Porter's melody is sturdy if unoriginal, and the lyrics are pretty much a one-trick pony. Filler, ultimately. Even with the reference to Satan.

So in Love: keep (side two, track four)

If I knew music terminology better than I do outside of a rock context, I could probably identify the style this song is performed in - merengue or something, who knows. I can tell you that it's wonderful - brooding and intense and yet still delicate. It's an evocative and slightly unsettling experience, and while Porter deserves credit for that, Bregman and Fitzgerald are certainly more responsible for it. Shadows lengthen here, and were this truly a musical, it'd be an edge-of-the-seat scene.

One of my favourite parts of my single-disc is the home stretch on side two where it gets all evocative. That's where this one belongs, side two track four, which on many albums is the Bermuda's Triangle.

I've Got You Under My Skin: lose

It shouldn't really be relevant to judge the quality of a performance based on a subsequent reinterpretation, and given the 'alternate-history' nature of this blog, it's anachronistic as well. Yet Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle's absolute demolition of this song - surely a masterpiece in the art of reinterpretation - turns this version into a sadly tentative 'stroll' through the song. It's still a great song, but this performance fails to catch fire.

I Concentrate on You: lose

To keep on about Sinatra, in his hands this became a sensuous, pulsating bossa nova. Now that's reinterpretation, too, and maybe just as radical. But since it takes it in another direction, it doesn't complete with Fitzgerald's more traditional take on the song, which brings out its natural beauty in an unshowy way.

Don't Fence Me In: lose

I've heard it said that this Songbook was so artistically successful because it bridged a divide - that Fitzgerald and Porter inhabited different worlds but were able to find common ground here. I disagree that they were so different, and that strikes me as a racial interpretation that fails to hold water. After all, for cultural disconnect, look to this track, an ersatz 'cowboy' song that Porter actually gets more or less right despite having probably never even set foot outside a city. Fitzgerald seems lost in it, though, evoking none of the wide open fields and thirst for freedom that the song praises.


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