Title: Ella at Zardi’s
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
Label: Verve Records
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: December 1, 2017
There are many CDs available by Ella Fitzgerald, so why is this one special? If you are reading this, you already know of her many of the treasured recordings—with Louis Armstrong, with Chick Webb, throughout the definitive Songbooks, and her many other live concert performances. But this recording from February 2, 1956 marks a major turning point in her career, one where impresario Norman Granz arranged the transfer of her recording contract from Decca Records to his personal management and to his label Verve Records. The setting for this particular CD is Zardi’s Jazzland, a club in Los Angeles, where Ella is backed by Don Abney (piano), Vernon Alley (bass), and Frankie Capp (drums).
Granz had included Ella in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts beginning in 1949 as each program’s only vocalist. During those years he had time to form his ideas for extending her career vastly beyond the “workmanlike” support she received from Decca. Granz recorded this night during the final days of this engagement. Yet, he never released it, perhaps due to its casual informality, preferring to create a more dramatic launch to her career at Verve. Accordingly, he had booked a trip to the studio just four days later to begin recording The Cole Porter Songbook, the start of her songbook series that celebrated so many wonderful composers and provided a large part of the foundation for the documentation of the Great American Songbook.
But it is this very informality that makes Ella at Zardi’s so engaging. Apparently, attendance at the club during the three weeks was light, and Ella remarks, “Where were all of you during the past 2 ½ weeks?” That doesn’t stop her from responding to many requests to show her appreciation, acknowledging Van Alexander and Gordon Jenkins among those present. Candidly she says several times, “I don’t know all the lyrics,” but that doesn’t stop her from creating each distinctive performance.
She thanks a member of the audience for reminding her of one line of lyrics as she sings “Tenderly.” Before starting, she asked the audience to help her recall a portion of the lyrics to “Gone with the Wind” but then jokingly sings that they are a bit too late, incorporating this ad lib without interruption in the song. Even “A-Tasket, A-Tasket” reemerges in this program as a celebration of Ella’s roots, anchoring her continuing legacy and greatly appreciated by her fans.
The two sets from Zardi’s (each introduced by Buddy de Franco) languished in Verve’s vaults for over 60 years, perhaps because Granz simply had bigger ideas for her recordings. Is this Ella’s BEST recording? No, but it is perhaps the one that is the most FUN to hear. It represents the turning point in the career of a great jazz artist, for without Granz we would not have her many remarkable recordings from studios, clubs and concert halls around the world. Together, they extended the body of vocal jazz performances available for our enjoyment today.
Norman Granz frequently said, “You can hear from the first bars of Ella’s performance if this is to be a jazz session.” This is clearly one of those. That becomes evident from the first song onward as Ella demonstrates her many talents to personalize her performance, employing her unique harmonic and melodic variations intermixed with shifts in tempo to enrich each song. Ella is relaxed, and her creative passion is on full view. You won’t regret purchasing this CD even if you, like me, already own and treasure many of Ella’s recordings. It will bring you joy and remind you of her absolute passion and commanding artistry.
Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad
Professor Emeritus of Marketing, IU Kelley School of Business
Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances