Were there a jazz rainbow—let’s call it a swinging rainbow—that ended in a pot of musical gold sufficiently effulgent as to immediately merit the word “masterpiece,” there’s a good chance that pot contained this new Ella Fitzgerald discovery.
Fitzgerald and Berlin (or West Berlin, as it was once called) go way back—to the eve of Valentine’s Day 1960, when she cut a live album there that infused swing and the American songbook with scat stylings that were as bracing as Picasso’s forays into synthetic cubism. On to March 25, 1962: Fitzgerald has come to Berlin once more. In her mid-forties, she’s in the early portion of what will be an extended vocal prime. Tapes are made, tapes are then lost, and thanks to the swinging rainbow, they have found us again.
The crowd is rapturous—there’s the ebullience of a pop concert, but a devotion to technique touching upon the hieratic. On the opening “Cheek to Cheek” Fitzgerald flirts with falsetto, a register she normally steers clear of, but you can tell she’s reading this over-joyed room and reading it well, providing the extra dollop of spiritedness. Her voice has a lithe quality that we don’t often get with her. Not that she jettisons her trademark solidity—a very buoyant solidity—but she calls to mind early Billie Holiday, with greater confidence.
“Cry Me a River” begins with a keening bit of scatting, itself a river of sound, the trademark Fitzgerald fluidity made new yet again. She’s a commanding blues singer, which we lose sight of given that her blues invariably swing. “All right, all right,” she intones at the start of “Good Morning Heartache,” laughs at the audience’s delight—they know the song immediately—and then proceeds to make this manner of fracturing sound downright companionable.
That’s a salient aspect of Fitzgerald’s gifts: to both go there—acknowledge the realness of a difficult, even withering human emotion—and to carry a listener forward from out of that particular mire. She’s the opposite of an unreliable narrator, an eminently trustable songstress who takes us to one place to help us better understand that we can get to others.
As such, this show feels like an exercise in trust-building. There are times when Fitzgerald has to wait for the audience to cool down to carry on, but you always sense that hand-in-glove component. Cementing the theme, “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” begins with a pianistic wedding march—an underscoring of the potency of union—before Fitzgerald enters and swings the bejeesus out of this mother.