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Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald: The Complete Chick Webb & Ella Fitzgerald Decca Sessions (1934-1941)

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This eight-disc collection, spanning 187 tracks and a dozen years (stretching wider than the title suggests), can be appreciated on several levels. First, there is drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, a remarkable figure who, the result of spinal tuberculosis, stood under 5 feet and hunchbacked but produced a giant sound. Twenty-five of the tracks included here are non-Fitzgerald sides, some from as early as 1929. Together they demonstrate that Webb fronted one of the era’s hottest outfits, vastly underappreciated but as worthy as Goodman’s or Dorsey’s.

Then there’s the delight of listening to Ella blossom as a vocalist. She was just 17 when Webb plucked her from the Harlem streets, and sounds green as a sapling on the earliest of their shared sides. As the years progress her confidence grows steadily, and early buds of what would become one of the most distinctive voices in jazz take shape. Yes, there were hits, most notably “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” and “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It” (a.k.a. “Mr. Paganini”), but her progression from diamond-in-the-rough to not-fully-polished gem is far more captivating. And there is Ella’s emergence as a bandleader after Webb’s death in 1939. Though the orchestra became insipidly sweet under her leadership, it’s a testament to her moxie that, at age 22, she was able to take command and was wise enough to know that her vocals needed to become the star attraction.

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