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Ella Fitzgerald: Live at Chautauqua, Volume 1

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The late 1960s weren’t the best time to be a jazz vocalist. As rock’s Age of Aquarius dawned, such major names as Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae suffered significant downturns. Ella was no exception. Her long, career-defining association with Verve ended in ’66. She then bounced from label to label, her stops at Capitol, Reprise and Atlantic as underwhelming as they were brief.

All of which makes this 49-minute set, from western New York’s fabled Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater in July ’68, so potentially valuable. Her backing trio-pianist Tee Carson, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Joe Harris-is merely serviceable. But Ella is in superb voice and form, arguably at the apex of her showmanship: Loose, easy and playful, her lyrical adlibs and interpolations are adorably clever. The 11-track playlist alternates between Tin Pan Alley classics (“It’s All Right With Me,” “Midnight Sun,” “The Lady Is a Tramp”) and a tasteful assortment of contemporary pop tunes, including “Watch What Happens,” “For Once in My Life” and “Goin’ Out of My Head,” plus a magnificently scatted, six-minute “One Note Samba.”

Sadly, what could’ve been a lost gem-vital evidence of the brilliance that her studio output then lacked-is marred by audio quality so distractingly dreadful it makes the disc almost unlistenable. Tinny and foggy, with Ella often drifting off-mic, it sounds as if it were captured on a hand-held cassette recorder from several rows back. And perhaps it was.

Originally Published