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Ella Fitzgerald: Loving Ella

Unlike the pop stars of today, Ella Fitzgerald will never go out of fashion. Think of all the songs she made famous and how many artists are still covering them. Think of all the tribute albums that have sprung up since her death in 1996. Think of all the singers who, when asked where they get their inspiration, reflexively cite Ella first.

Ella would have turned 90 this year, and the occasion brings us a couple of exceptional but very different releases: Concord’s Love Letters From Ella and Verve’s We All Love Ella: Celebrating the First Lady of Song.

The Concord record consists of previously unreleased material from Ella recorded in the 1970s: seven tracks featuring guitarist Joe Pass, two with Count Basie’s orchestra, and a stunning take of “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with pianist André Previn and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. But it’s more than a trip through the archives: The album is enhanced with newly recorded material. A rhythm section has been dubbed over most of the duets with Pass, and the London Symphony Orchestra now accompanies Ella on four tunes, including “Cry Me a River,” which Field says was actually written for Ella despite its long association with Julie London.

“I thought that was a great idea,” says Gregg Field, who produced the album and who served as Ella’s drummer in 1985-86. “Ella, to my knowledge, never recorded with a major symphony. For me, the London Symphony is as good as it gets. Early on, I thought that would make this record an event.”

Field says he got the idea to unearth some of Ella’s recordings when Concord acquired the catalogs of Fantasy and Pablo. “A lot of the things that were recorded never saw the light of day,” he says. “You would only have 45 minutes on an LP, so I knew there would be a lot of unreleased stuff in the vaults.”

The Verve release is a tribute album featuring a who’s who of jazz and R&B, performing in a variety of styles. Natalie Cole serves up a smoking version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” Chaka Khan swings lightly on “Lullaby of Birdland.” Linda Ronstadt brings her trademark intimacy and grace to “Miss Otis Regrets.” Etta James turns “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” into a slow, soulful blues, and k.d. lang infuses “Angel Eyes” with oodles of emotion. And in a welcome surprise, Michael Bublé, the only male on the disc, closes the project with a rendition of “Too Close for Comfort” that would make Bobby Darin proud. Gladys Knight, Diana Krall, Lizz Wright, Dianne Reeves, Queen Latifah and Ledisi also make appearances.

“Doing a tribute can be really great. It can also be really tough,” says Phil Ramone, the legendary producer who helmed We All Love Ella. “The charge here was I wanted these women to talk about how they felt about Ella, because they’ve taken the torch, so to speak, and they’re the best of the bunch. The secret of it is not to try to do an Ella version of the same song. The song is the choice, and you be yourself.”

Ramone says there is no doubt in his mind that Ella would love We All Love Ella.

“She would absolutely enjoy this,” he says. “I believe it. There is not a moment in this album that suffers from padding or too much this or that. We didn’t allow it. People who came from her era gave it to you in three, three-and-a-half minutes, max. It’s a style of its own.”

Krall, speaking by phone from a stop on her current tour, says she didn’t hesitate when Verve asked her to participate in the project.

“I said, ‘Here’s what I would love to do, and here’s the way I would love to do it,'” says Krall, who performs a tender version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” accompanied only by pianist Hank Jones. Krall says the choice was inspired by Ella’s famous sessions with pianist Ellis Larkins. Asked whether Krall considers Ella an influence, she answers the query with a rhetorical question: “How could she not be?”