Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ella Fitzgerald

  • Love Songs: Best of the Verve Song Books [Verve, 1996] A
  • Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000] A+
  • The Best of the Concert Years [Pablo, 2003] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Love Songs: Best of the Verve Song Books [Verve, 1996]
The third hour-long budget album PolyGram has constructed from that 16-CD box you passed on seems much the best to me. It doesn't limit a swinging chick to ballads, or apply her automatic sophistication to lyrics whose brilliance verges on silly, like "Miss Otis Regrets" or "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Because the emotional complexities love songs deal in are known to us and assumed by her, we're free to ignore her questionable interpretive powers and luxuriate in an instrument as pleasurable as Sinatra's or Jones's. I'm not just talking subtle force and supple range--those you can pick up in the gym. I love its verve and its reserve, and can't get over the character that grains but never roughens its lissome clarity. A

Ken Burns Jazz [Verve, 2000]
Suffering and subtlety may be the way of truth, but though I've revered Billie Holiday for 40 years, they're not the only way. First time through this rocket ship of an argument for Fitzgerald as blithe spirit and improvising musician, I was put off by the opener, her first and biggest hit, "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." It was so silly, so girly. But as she floated through the closer--the almost as flighty "Shiny Stockings," once again with words by the artiste--it dawned on me that she sounded just as girly at 45. And that was 1963, by which time she had outscatted everybody this side of King Louis, defined the pop canon, and ebulliently declared to her impeccably credentialed jazz combo, "I wanna rock, I wanna roll." Girly was so much her gift that it's too bad there isn't anything later--she was still making young records past 60. There were many things she didn't understand--that's why the token "blues" is a pop song about blues. But there was plenty Billie didn't understand too. Ella outlived her on the difference. A+

The Best of the Concert Years [Pablo, 2003]
With minor exceptions not named Cassandra or Sarah (or Carmen or Betty), I find just two jazz singers of consistent interest as melodic improvisers and sonic producers. Ella did sink to shtick on the four albums boiled down here, but on this selection the live format turns a pop interpreter into a jazz musician. She's 54 on the first two tracks and 35 on the next six with little change in clarity or sprightliness. But by the last five, when she's 65, her voice has thickened drastically, and to compensate she overdoes it like her lessers--flatting lines, distorting words, laying on gutturals and vibrato. Listen three times and you'll hang on every phrase. A

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