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Music Reviews

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Verve
Verve 314 537 284-2 Jazz / VocalsElla and Louis

How nice it is to come home again!

After months of campy vocals, Lounge music (psuedo or otherwise), world beat and other dalliences in popular music, The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Verve is like a breath of fresh air. Hearing two professionals at their peak, playing the music they know best in a laid-back style they're comfortable with, has to be something great.

The three discs contain the albums Ella & Louis, Ella and Louis Again, Porgy & Bess plus tracks from the Lp Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl. A lot of this material has been available in various forms for a few years but the remastering, unique packaging and completeness make this a worthy investment.

You don't need us to tell you what a grand vocalist Ella Fitzgerald was, but we're going to anyway. One day long ago we discovered we could return from work in the foulest mood and play the Gershwin Songbook by Ella and Nelson Riddle and then be in the finest of spirits. The double martini helped, but there's no denying Ella's powers. A lot of critics complained that Ella was almost too pristine and lacked the soul of say, Billie Holiday. This kind of racsim is a tad disturbing. Not all black women jazz singers had to have Billie's grit to be good. It's just not an "either/or" situation. There's room for everyone but you need to accept that Ella's brand of jazz was a dry martini and fois gras on toast rather than a swig from an open bottle of gin and a pickled pig's foot. 

Many of us recall our first impressions of Louis Armstrong playing some pretty silly versions of  pop songs like Hello Dolly, especially during the later years. Some of us prefer cool Miles Davis to What a Wonderful World. Again, there's room for everyone. The Verve recordings Louis made weren't as revoltionary as his earlier work but they weren't as corny as his Kapp recordings and  his gruff vocals are as effortless as his chops on the trumpet. Once you get sucked in, you may want to find his date with Oscar Peterson for more.

The songs on The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong are all standards which works with the loose arrangements because everyone involved knows the tunes so well. None of the songs are definitive versions but they're great all the same. Personally, we never need to hear Let's Do It or Makin' Whoopee ever again and here we have two very long versions.

The Porgy & Bess disc is a mixed bag, but we have to say that we don't think anyone has recorded the best version of this yet. In contrast with the first two discs, Porgy & Bess is a bit prenentious and ambitious. The arrangements (by one of our favorites, Russ Garcia) are quite orchestrated and often swinging. Ella does better in this situation but both singers have nice moments. Nothing quite matches Ella's solo performance of I Loves You Porgy on Ella in Rome (Verve 835454-2).

We'd be remiss in not advising you to open the CD packaging very carefully. It's a fussy but attractive accordian style case that must be openedin a particular way or you'll lose the cover photo.

marti5

 
Fantcha
Criolinha
Tinder Records 42852372 World/Cabo Verde

If you can't wait for the next Cesaria Evora disc or if you long for a more updated and happier version of the grand dame of Cabo Verde, you'll want to get this album by her protégé Fantcha. At first the similarity is disarming, recalling Cubans Albita and Celina Gonzales or Yanks Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. The similarities melt away after a few tracks and Fantcha seems almost more like a contemporary Brazilian singer rather than Evora.

Other than her haunting voice, the appeal of Evora was her unbearable meloncholy. Fantcha gets a little blue now and then but it's harder to imagine her sitting alone in a sad little bar nursing a drink and singing her woes. In fact, some of the arrangements are so peppy that it might not be appealing to more rootsy fans of world music. But as straight pop music (that happens to be sung in Portugese with a good beat), it's incredibly appealing.

 

marti3

 

Gene Harris &
Jack McDuff
Down Home Blues
Concord Jazz CCD-4785-2

It seems as a mere lad we were dragged to countless street festivals in the early 1970s. We really disliked these gatherings, aside from the oddly beautiful sand candles that appealed to our pre-pubescent aesthetic. The general feeling of the times was "hang loose" and that's what unwise gentlemen of grand proportions did as they walked around nursing large red plastic cups of warm beer without their shirts. The music was inevitably a second or third reincarnation of a mediocre rock band trying to recapture their glory of 1968 and the "San Francisco Sound" or a blues band.

We can still feel the sun beating cruelly down upon our acned skin and warming our brown velour shirt to the point of breaking a sweat as the adults tried to "rock out" to the blues, spreading their joy and body odor to all. Because this was a street festival, there was no piano, or even worse, an over-miked Fender Rhodes. On the peppier numbers, drunken festivalgoers would try to dance but unlike with rhythm and blues, there was no real step. This, along with endless electric guitar solos, was more than we could bear. At home, we listened to Bessie Smith along with Tom Jones and the Partridge Family, but this kind of blues seemed miles away from Bessie Smith, accompanied by a pianist, moaning about the rising muddy waters of the Mississippi River.

It's been a few years and street fairs are still best left to others but we've come to love certain types of blues. Down Home Blues works on many levels, but the real key is the chunky, yet elegant piano-playing of Gene Harris and the classic Hammond organ doodlings of Jack McDuff. The recording is crisp without being sterile and the songs are well-balanced between flag-wavers and slow pass-the-bottle jams. Five of the nine tracks have vocals, which don't get in the way but the real thrill is hearing these two masters at work.

marti4 

Phoebe Snow
I Can't Complain
House of Blues Records 51416 1352 2 Pop

As a young lad coming of age in the late 1970s, we were taken with Phoebe Snow. Who wasn't? She played songs with good melodic hooks and had a distinctive musical voice. Her first albums were the high points of the Album-Oriented-Rock (AOR) period, especially her jazzy Second Childhood. What a crime it's been to only hear her voice on TV commercials for electric fans, singing the bland songs of Seals & Crofts!

Her new album, I Can't Complain, is a tough one. Her voice is still great but the song selections and arrangements are all wrong. Instead of her classic soft-rock sound, the album is mostly non-descript rock that doesn't roll. A smarter move would have been to pursue a jazzier vein or being that the label is House of Blues, a strong blues groove. She just sounds silly doing Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart and downright Las Vegas with Jackie Wilson's Baby, Work Out. We were absent the day they explained the appeal of the Doobie Brothers' Michael McDonald, who sings on two of the tracks in his usual constipated-soul manner. He must have been an early influence on Michael Bolton.

Joni Mitchell's A Case of You and Never Never Land  from the show Peter Pan fare much better but the whole album really should have been along these lines.

marti2 

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5 Martinis = Classic
4 Martinis = Great
3 Martinis = Good
2 Martinis = Fair
1 Martini = Poor

 

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