Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Ella Fitzgerald: The Lost Berlin Tapes (Verve)

A review of a previously unreleased performance from the vocalist

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
Ella Fitzgerald: The Lost Berlin Tapes
The cover of The Lost Berlin Tapes by Ella Fitzgerald

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.

Learn more about The Lost Berlin Tapes on Amazon!

Today’s Jazz Singers on Ella Fitzgerald

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.