Title: Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: October 2, 2020
There can be no dispute: Ella Fitzgerald is one of the elite vocalists in the history of jazz. In my opinion, Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes, presents one of the most enjoyable concert recordings in her career. Accompanied by Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass and Stan Levey on drums, the rhythm section provides a solid foundation for Ella’s creative and intensely personal performance – absolute perfection. This is a newly discovered treasure. Verve first released Ella in Berlin (1960) on LP from a concert on February 13, 1960, then Ella Returns to Berlin (1991) on CD from a concert on February 11, 1961, but overlooked, until now, this third performance in Berlin from her concert on March 25, 1962. The stereo sound mix, remastered from the original tapes, closely captures Ella’s voice, giving listener’s the impression they are sitting right in front of her in the auditorium.
The program repeats only three tunes from the previously released Berlin performances: “Cheek to Cheek” (from 1961), “Mack the Knife” (from both 1960 and 1961) and “Mr. Paganini” (from 1961). Ella’s 1960 Berlin recording of “Mack the Knife” received a Grammy Award following its release, and listener’s now have an opportunity to compare her award winning performance to the version recorded two years later. During her first Berlin concert, she adlibbed her words after forgetting the song’s lyrics. This 1962 reprise has its own unique feature when, during an ad lib chorus, she forgets where she is and momentarily pauses singing while her accompaniment continues uninterrupted (see video below).
Will Friedwald reviewed this new release for the Wall Street Journal and keenly observed that Ella was subtly greeting her enthusiastic audience in Berlin by opening with Irving Berlin’s tune “Cheek to Cheek.” Berlin for Berlin … This concert is clearly a jazz performance but covers a range of approaches, drawing from Ella’s swing and classic songbook repertoires. Some of the highlights include the powerful rhythm section propelling Ella’s delivery of “Taking a Chance on Love” and throughout a wonderfully swinging “Jersey Bounce”; her deeply passionate approach to “Someone to Watch over Me”; and transitioning from emotion to swing as she sings “C’est Magnifique.” She also develops uniquely creative melodic variations in “Summertime” and uses her voice like an instrument as she solos over a pulsating rhythm in “Hallelujah, I Love Him So.”
Throughout, Ella employs numerous changes in keys and tempos within songs to bring variety to her performances – including a rare example of her singing the blues in the final tune, “Wee Baby Blues,” in response to a request. This song also gives her a chance to sing that she is indeed back in Berlin, compensating for her earlier forgetfulness. There are more delights that you discover with repeated listening. In singing “My Kind of Guy” (adjusting gender from the original title “My Kind of Girl”), she incorporates names of Count Basie, Harry Belafonte, Nat Cole, and Perry Como into her adlibbed lyrics and then sings that her guy says she is “My Kind of Girl,” echoing the original title.
How did this remain on the shelf for so many years? I had a chance to visit Verve’s vault in New Jersey many years ago when I carried my 16” transcription recordings for dubbing for inclusion in a 10 CD box set, The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve (1944-1949). These performances from Carnegie Hall in New York and Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles were unknown to Verve until I contacted the set’s producer. During my visit, I saw shelf after shelf stacked high with boxed master tapes, rows seemingly unending. One only knows how many other wonderful recordings await future issue.
Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes presents a deeply personal performance and is a powerful addition to Ella Fitzgerald’s recorded legacy. I recommend it highly.
Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad
Professor Emeritus of Marketing, Kelley School of Business
Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances