Monday, April 01, 2013

My First Favorite Jazz Album: Ella and Louis (Again, Porgy, Compact)

I have been talking about the first and subsequent jazz albums one ought to listen to, as well as about some of the famous ones that have achieved Governmental Recognition.  Those are all great places to start listening to jazz.  And I did, many years ago (when I started a never-really-engaged exploration with jazz) start with the first and then hear a few of the seconds before trailing off.

Then they got shelved, added to in a trickle, and enstoraged, and not heard again (save as incidental music to a modern life) for years.  (And now I have pulled them all out, and added to them substantially, and have heard more jazz in the last month than I've heard in the rest of my life combined (save for the album I'm about to discuss.))

Except that, in the same time -- starting, actually, probably a bit before, so this really was my first jazz album -- I heard another album.  And heard it over, and over, and over, and over, and over.  Memorized it; loved it.

I just didn't have the slightest idea it was jazz.  Which was pretty stupid of me, when it comes right down to it, since it had the word "JAZZ" right there on the cover in what Douglas Adams would have called big, friendly letters.  But when I thought "jazz", I thought of various instrumental music styles.  I didn't think of vocal music, which is what this was.  Letters be damned, or at least ignored.

I'm not sure what I would have called it, really.  "Popular music", I suppose.  Older, pre-rock popular music.  Maybe I would even have called it jazz, had anyone asked or I ever thought about it.  But I never did think about it what it was.  I just listened to it.

But, of course, it is jazz -- clearly, unmistakably jazz -- performed by two legendary jazz musicians, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

The album in question was called Compact Jazz: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

This particular album is a compilation, a "best-of" collection (Compact Jazz was a series of those but out by Verve; I don't know how many were released, but it was a lot -- more than two dozen, certainly, possibly many more), drawn from three major albums released in the 1950s.  The three albums in question were: Ella and Louis (1956), Ella and Louis Again (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1957) (which, of course, were EF and LA's rendition of the classic Gershwin opera.)  It had four songs from the first album, six from the second, and two from the third.  (List of songs here.)

So, why did I hear it? Why didn't I think of it as jazz?

The answer to the latter is the answer to the former: I didn't think of it as jazz because I didn't seek it out; I heard it at work.

When I was in college, I worked two summers, full-time, and two years part-time during the academic year, in the package room at Harvard's Science Center (a big building of classrooms, offices, labs, public spaces and a library).  The package room at the Science Center received, in addition to the packages for the Science Center itself, all the packages for all the buildings in Harvard Yard, since package trucks weren't allowed in (letter carriers were).  Those were the freshman dorms, above all, but also a lot of office buildings and classrooms and so forth.  So it was a busy mailroom -- overwhelmingly so, at the end of every summer/beginning of every fall, when it would receive huge sets of all the earthly possessions of various freshman about to arrive, or just arrived, for the fall term.  But even otherwise, it was busy (the dorms housed summer students over the summer, who were generally high-school students in the pre-college program, and who thus got more than their share of packages).  Lots to do.

The person I worked for, the chief of the mailroom, was a large man named Sam McCleary.  He was friendly, good humored, whip-smart and a kind and generous boss (without tolerating any bullshit); I liked and admired him, and got more from knowing him, than I was ever able to properly say.  I would run out to deliver notices, but mostly I worked in the package room itself, as did he.  So we were together for hours every day (albeit busy and in different parts of the room).  When things got really slow, we'd chat.  He taught me how to play cribbage.

And we had a tape player which we could listen to music on while we worked.

I don't recall where this tape came from.  I assume it was Sam's.  I occasionally brought in tapes of my own; I remember once I brought in Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, which we listened to; when the UPS delivery guy remarked on it, Sam replied "we're very spiritual here".  And sometimes we just listened to the radio.  But there were a few tapes, and this was one of them.

Well, I liked it, so I put it on.  And again.  And again.  At some point, I remember, I told Sam that when I was a kid I used to listen to every album I really liked over and over and over and over, so he should tell me when he was sick of it, because I wasn't going to get sick of it myself.

"Well, you see," said Sam, "I did the same thing when I was a kid."

For all that, I think he flinched before I did.  Although I think it was more than a day.

But we kept listening to it frequently -- at least once a day, is my memory, although we're talking about two decades ago,  The point is, I really got to know that album very well.  Without ever thinking about what it was.  At some point, in a CD store, I saw the CD for sale, and bought it: I wanted to be able to hear it after I graduated -- forever, or the indefinitely that humans so often mistake for forever.

-- So why did I like it so much?  -- That's easy: because it's so damn good.  -- All right then, why is it so damn good?  -- Let me count the ways.

• The songs.  This was my first introduction to a number of classic American popular songs from the pre-rock era (say, before the mid-1950s) which can sound, to modern ears, old-fashioned if not mannered and contrived.  But they're really quite good: catchy melodies and quite witty lyrics (including lyrics that I remember thinking were racier than I would have predicted).  My favorites (although I never put it together at the time) were the ones by George and Ira Gershwin -- in particular, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "A Foggy Day" -- but the album also included songs by Benny Goodman, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein (without Rodgers), Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern, and others.  In other words, I got to hear a rich tradition of song which I was more or less ignorant of.  And they really are quite good.

• The performers.  They're just fabulous.  Ella Fitzgerald has a gorgeous voice and is a brilliant singer.  Louis Armstrong has a very different voice -- gravely and low -- but it's wonderful in its own way.  (Readers not into jazz might be most familiar with it from his famous version of the song "What a Wonderful World".)  And Armstrong plays trumpet on most of the tracks too -- and it's his trumpet which made his reputation and (in the process) remade jazz.*

• The duets.  But it's not just two brilliant performers.  It's what they do with the collaboration.  First, Fitzgerald's gorgeous voice and Armstrong's gravely one make a marvelous contrast, either sung together or in alteration, which is (I think) far better than either apart.  (I have to admit that, having learned to love this album first, hearing any of Fitzgerald's solo performances feel somewhat lacking to me.)  In addition to the marvelous textures of their raw voices, they play off each other, tease each other and quite noticeably interact in marvelous ways, that add a lot of humor and verve to the performances.  Then there's the fact that most of the songs are love songs (not all: for instance, "It Ain't Necessarily So, from Porgy & Bess, isn't one.)  So that singing them as duets makes an enormous amount of thematic sense -- and Fitzgerald and Armstrong play that up marvelously, to great effect.  They flirt, musically, and it really works.

• The music.  And then there's the instruments.  However much I may distinguish in my own mind (yes, still (perhaps mistakenly)) between vocal and instrumental jazz, there's a lot of great jazz instrumentation here.  One of the challenges in learning to listen to jazz (which I hope to write about in future posts) is figuring out what various soloists are doing -- which can be a puzzle even if you actually like it.  But for me, because I've heard them so much, Armstrong's trumpet solos sound not only good but inevitable: I can't imagine how you wouldn't orchestrate the songs that way.  (Which is to say that not only are they great -- which they really are -- but that they're great in a way that seems to make sense, rather than being great but mysterious.)  In that sense, this album did help me learn to hear jazz.

So, yes, it's a great album.  And in my most recent flurry of jazz exploration, one of the things I did was track down a more complete set of the Armstrong & Fitzgerald collaborations, and I can report that the other songs are as good as those on the Classic Jazz selection.

Would I recommend it as a starter jazz album?  Well, unquestionably, but with one major qualification: it's vocal jazz.  Perhaps I'm wrong to distinguish so sharply between vocal and instrumental jazz, but hearing them just feel very different to me.  For me, at least up until this point, they're different varieties of musical experience, on a fundamental level.  (And, in general, I'm more interested in instrumental than vocal jazz.)  I don't think I'm alone in this -- a few of the starter lists I talked about in an earlier post are specifically limited to instrumental jazz.  (And one of the lists that wasn't so restricted did include Ella and Louis in its suggestions.)  But if you're interested in jazz, then you have to hear at least a bit of the vocal jazz -- and for those purposes, I can't imagine a better starting point.  Speaking as an uneducated and beginning listener, it is one of my two favorite sets of jazz vocals; it's simply marvelous.  For that matter, even if you're not particularly interested in jazz, but just want to hear some great music, I'll recommend this unreservedly too.

So, if you want to hear it, how should you get it?  There's no reason to stick to the best-of set I happened to hear.  Get the full set of duets.  But how to do that?  It's complicated.  There's no one single set that has all of the recordings that Fitzgerald and Armstrong did together, but there are a couple that have most of them.

It goes like this.  (I'm working from the discography here.)  They did six songs (three singles, each with a B side) for Decca in 1950/1951.  Based on the success of those albums, I believe, they went on to produce a whole album -- Ella and Louis -- but this time for a different label, Verve.  Verve also produced the follow-up albums Ella and Louis Again, and Porgy and Bess.  The first and the third albums had pretty stable track lists (of 11 and 15 songs, respectively), but the second varied, with a fair number of bonus tracks added later.

Now, Verve released an album called The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on Verve -- but note those last two words, sometimes deemphasized, and occasionally omitted altogether: the six songs from Decca are not included.  But all of the three Verve albums are, the second in its most expanded version, plus two extra tracks that don't seem to be otherwise available.

Then there's an import set called the Complete Album Collection, which I snagged on Amazon.  (At the moment it's listed as out of stock.)  This has several advantages.  First, it's nearly half the price of the Complete on Verve set ($15 for CDs as opposed to $27 for mp3s).  Second, it's slightly larger.  The Complete Album Collection lacks one song that Complete on Verve has ("Undecided", one of the two never released prior to the Complete on Verve set); but it has two of the six Decca tracks ("Can Anyone Explain?" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me").  Which is a good trade.

...And then it has a song that's neither on the Verve nor one of the six earlier Decca songs -- one which is, in fact, not listed in the discography I'm relying on at all -- but which is, unmistakably, a duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (including trumpet by the latter): "The Frim Fram Sauce".  I have no idea of its provenance.  But it's a third addition to balance out the single omission.  (And, of course, it raises the possibility that there might be still others.  I don't know of any; there are several other songs on the album Our Love Is Here to Stay: Ella & Louis Sing Gershwin, but I think they're all actually solo versions, by either EF or LA, from other sets they did.)

But the truth is the two sets are nearly identical: stick the CDs of the Complete Album Collection in a computer, and in two of the three cases the automated track namer will think it's actually the Complete on Verve set; only disk three differs at all.  (There are still others, such as one which is (mis)labeled** Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: the Complete Studio Recorded Duets, which omits some things from the other collections, but has all the Decca tracks.  Etc.)  Either will get you the bulk of their fabulous collaboration.***

Way or another, check them out.

* Really.  That's not hyperbole.  Armstrong's playing was what established the tradition of the individual solo, and his style dominated for nearly two decades (until the development of Bop in the early 40's.)

** One thing that a non-jazz listener has to get used to in getting into jazz -- at least in my experience -- is the really astonishing number of albums that are labeled "complete", or "best of", and so forth, which turn out to be nothing of the sort.  Sometimes there's some hidden qualification -- complete/best of from a particular record label -- but in general, there's a fairly shocking amount of poor labeling around.

*** I think the rest are purchasable as individual mp3 tracks; I haven't bothered to do this yet, though.  Some day.

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