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January/February 2008

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella in Hamburg
Verve
Ella Fitzgerald
Live at Mister Kelly’s
Verve

According to Bob Newhart, “It was like you were in someone’s living room.” Indeed, among legendary nightspots, few could boast the intimacy of Chicago’s Mister Kelly’s. The space’s name was borrowed from its original manager, Pat Kelly, but it was owned and operated by two brothers, Oscar and George Marienthal, renowned for their warm hospitality to both guests and visiting artists. So, it’s no wonder the Rush Street landmark managed, throughout its two-decade history (opened in 1953, twice nearly destroyed in fires, and finally shuttered in 1975), attracted the top tier of singers (extending from Sarah Vaughan to Bette Midler) and cerebral comedians (Newhart, Woody Allen and Shelley Berman among them).

Fortunately, Verve Records honcho Norman Granz had both a penchant for live recordings and an appreciation for the superior sound and performance quality Kelly’s snug atmosphere enabled. Granz captured Anita O’Day there in April 1958. He was back four months later with Ella Fitzgerald. The resultant O’Day disc was, and remains, a cornerstone of her Verve catalog. The Fitzgerald sessions—early and late shows recorded on the closing night of a three-week run—weren’t released. Now that they’ve been exhumed from the Verve vaults, the mystery of their long-delayed appearance can be solved. Since the concern can’t have been one of quality (though Ella was, among the upper echelon of jazz vocalists, likely recorded live more often than any other, this double-disc set ranks near, if not atop, the list), it must have been a question of quantity. At the time, record buyers were busily snapping up copies of the seismic Ella Fitzgerald at the Opera House (culled from her 1957 JATP concerts with the Oscar Peterson Trio) and Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport. The possible addition of a third live disc was surely judged oversaturation.

Remarkably, the playlist for the Mister Kelly’s date doesn’t include a single holdover from either the JATP or Newport sessions. Nor does Ella draw at all from what were then her two most recent studio releases, Ella Swings Lightly and Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook. Instead, while breaking in a new trio—pianist Lou Levy, bassist Max Bennett and drummer Gus Johnson—she alternates among the old (sturdy standards, including plenty of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, and Cole Porter), the new (dipping into the Sinatra songbook for “Witchcraft” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”) and the unusual (opening with a peppy “Your Red Wagon” and covering the jaunty, mid-’40s June Christy-Stan Kenton hit “Across the Alley from the Alamo”).

The first disc, dubbed “The Main Show,” is Ella as we know and love her: in great voice and good spirits, scatting up a storm on her self-penned “Joe Williams’ Blues” and a “How High the Moon” that presages her historic 1960 treatment on the Grammy-winning Ella in Berlin, and exercising her career-long favorite gambit—pretending to forget the lyrics so she can indulge in some impromptu vocalese—not once but twice. She cuts loose with a kaleidoscopic “St. Louis Blues” and brings down the house with a singularly sublime “Summertime” that escalates from hazy to hard-swinging. If the first disc is brilliant, the second disc, comprising the shorter “Late Show,” is a revelation. Utterly relaxed and, considering Ella’s usually intense shyness, surprisingly chatty and delightfully funny, she tells the crowd her plan is to let things unfold as they may and “just do what comes naturally.” And so she does, bouncing through “Exactly Like You,” sipping wine as she delivers a “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and a “Stardust” of blazing torchiness, reaching a scat-fueled crescendo on “Perdido” and closing with an adorably ad-libbed “Anything Goes.”

Ella In Hamburg may not be quite the rarity that Mister Kelly’s is (the original album was released in 1966 and reissued on CD three decades later in Japan), but it’s great to see it finally available (and affordable) domestically. Where Kelly’s is cozily clubby, Hamburg demonstrates Ella’s equal ease with a massive crowd. Bending to the musical tastes of the day, she opens with “Walk Right In,” stomping all over the hit version made famous by the folksy Rooftop Singers with her blistering treatment; rides the rising bossa-nova wave with a brisk, shimmering “Boy From Ipanema”; nods to the contemporary Broadway scene with a pull-out-all-the-stops “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and gets her “yeah-yeahs” out with a muscular “A Hard Day’s Night.” She also enjoys invigorating workouts on “And the Angels Sing” and, oddly but delightfully, “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” But it is Ella the balladeer who still reigns supreme as, backed by the Tommy Flanagan Trio (Flanagan on piano, Keter Betts on bass and her Kelly’s pal Gus Johnson on drums), she reduces the barn-sized Musikhalle to pin-drop quiet throughout “Body and Soul,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Angel Eyes.”

Originally published in January/February 2008
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