Ellington fans will recognize Alice Babs as the principal vocalist on his late-career landmark, 1968’s Second Sacred Concert. But there was another Ellington-Babs collaboration five years earlier, a sterling Paris session that resulted in Serenade to Sweden, widely considered the rarest album in the Ellington catalog, never reissued until now.
Age 39 at the time, Babs was an established film and recording star in her native Sweden. With impeccable English diction, she echoes the pop purity of Doris Day or Jo Stafford and the heaven-sent majesty of Mary Lou Williams, her jazz instincts keen and true. And, as demonstrated across several wordless tracks, her scatting often approaches Ella worthiness.
The all-Ellington program ranges from such songbook cornerstones as “Satin Doll” and “Come Sunday” to the lighthearted “La De Doody Doo” and bluesy “Stoona.” The title track wasn’t written for Babs (it dates to Duke’s Cotton Club days), but the bouncy “Babsie” was. For the majority of the 15 tracks, Ellington opts for small-group intimacy: himself on piano, bassist Gilbert Rovère, drummer Christian Garros and a quartet of locals playing French horn. Kenny Clarke takes over for Garros on select tracks, including a dreamy “I Didn’t Know About You” and a gently swung “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Saxophonist Gérard Badini helps propel an ice-cool “C Jam Blues.” And Ellington cedes the keys to Billy Strayhorn for a fogbound “Strange Visitor” and a finely etched “Something to Live For,” its aching loneliness and tender yearning in exquisite balance.