Last week was truly special for music lovers. For starters, Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday was April 25; she would have been 100 years old. Ella was the quintessential female jazz/pop singer, and a case could be made that she would edge out Frank Sinatra as the greatest interpreter of the Great American Songbook. Her influence on vocalists over the decades regardless of genre cannot be over estimated.
In addition, last week saw the release of Willie Nelson’s umpty umpth album, God’s Problem Child, a remarkable collection of songs that may well be his best in quite awhile. Willie’s output of albums is unprecedented, and there have been times, perhaps every couple of dozen albums or so when he almost seemed on auto pilot. Yet at 83, Willie has produced a collection of songs as vital and fresh as his classic tunes were back in the 1960’s.
Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child
Willie writes and sings about growing old with sentiment but never sentimentality. He can convey nostalgia, regret, or sweet memories in one song and stab you with humor the next. A classic example of the latter is “Still Not Dead,” co-written with producer Buddy Cannon, in which he muses about rumors that spread on the internet not too long ago that the old red headed stranger was on his last legs.
“It Gets Easier” epitomizes the former, blending quiet humor with the regret in lines like, “I don’t have to do one damn thing that I don’t want to do, except for missing you.”
One of my favorite tunes is “Old Timer” by the great and underrated Donnie Fritts. “You think you are a young bull rider, then you look in the mirror and seen an old timer.”
There’s also a fine tribute to Willie’s great friend Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” written by Gary Nicholson whom I wrote about a few months ago. These two songs, notwithstanding, the strength of the album lies in the seven tunes Willie co-wrote with Cannon.
I also have to say that in addition to Willie’s great writing and singing, any description of the strength of this album has to include his guitar playing, which has not diminished at all with age, and the incomparable harmonica of his long time sideman Mickey Raphael.
Ella Fitzgerald And The Count Basie Orchestra – A Perfect Match (Live)
There are literally dozens of Ella Fitzgerald albums I could recommend. For starters over several years in the fifties she recorded a series of albums focused on the songbooks of the stalwarts of the Great American Songbook from Duke Ellington to Cole Porter to the Gershwin’s to Irving Berlin to Rodgers and Hart and others. The collection is excerpted in Best Of The Songbooks. There are many others including great live recordings and her marvelous duets with Louis Armstrong. I happen to like A Perfect Match, which was recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979. It catches Ella still young enough at 62 to ignite an audience united with one of jazz’s hardest swinging big bands and recorded with reasonably modern technology.
I’ve had the album since it was released on vinyl, and I always get a kick when I put it on. In researching for this post, I found a number of reviews with a variety of quibbles. All I can say in rebuttal is it won the Grammy in 1980 for best female jazz vocal performance. No singer could swing, improvise of scat like Ella as evidenced by the closing number “Basella,” the opener “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” or the romping conclusion to “After You’ve Gone” as you no doubt saw. And few could match her on love songs tinged in blue like “You’ve Changed” or Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” Her rich voice saturates these songs like honey poured over a warm biscuit.
Yes, Ella in 1979 may have been past her prime as a vocalist. As a singer who could convey the essence of her songs and both connect with and entertain her audience, however, she was still at the top of her game. She and the Basie orchestra deliver the passion and punch that make for a concert performance to cherish.
And what the heck… Duke Ellington’s birthday was also last week, so I’ll close this week with one of the most beautiful versions of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. From the 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Here is “Mood Indigo.”