By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
Ah, the gruff grit-and-gravel voice of Louis Armstrong and the warm, precise silky delivery of Ella Fitzgerald, a match made in heaven. Sandpaper and satin – but the difference is what makes it work. Ella and Louis displayed an extraordinary yin/yang vocal chemistry. As writer Doug Ramsey once noted “the contrast between her polished perfection and his rough perfection is delicious.” They are both jazz vocalists who know where the pulse is and their fondness for lyrics (and for one another) is palpable. This inspired collaboration was masterminded by producer Norman Granz who featured the duo in three superior albums: Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again and Porgy and Bess. Both were riding high at this stage in their careers and their work together is a highlight of the 1950s, a busy time for classic vocal jazz recordings. For the first two recordings, Granz assembled a stellar quartet of Oscar Peterson (piano), Buddy Rich (drums), Herb Ellis (guitar) and Ray Brown (bass). Ella was a longtime fan of Louis and she went out of her way to make him comfortable in their collaborations. For example, being the better singer technically she insisted that he select the tunes and the keys – even if they were not best for her.
The 1956 Ella and Louis session features eleven classic standards. The two sound positively ebullient together, scatting and swinging their way through songs by Gershwin, Berlin, Duke Ellington, and other well-known material, proving that putting two gifted performers with the right backing and the right song creates musical magic, for example “Cheek to Cheek” is a small classic. The Ella and Louis album joined the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015
Ella and Louis Again, recorded the following year, is more of the same: a double album that brought the two together but with Louis Bellson replacing Rich. Granz was canny enough to not monkey with a good thing and, in some ways, this collection of songs is even better than the first, with stellar versions of an out-of-control (but charming) “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “I Won’t Dance.” A six minute version of “Autumn in New York” is a beautifully tender reading with a lovely Armstrong trumpet solo and is arguably the best thing the two ever recorded.
There is no shortage of jazz interpretations of the Gershwin classic Porgy and Bess with the Gil Evans and Miles Davis collaboration perhaps the most famous (the most unjustly overlooked may be Bill Potts’ The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess). Although somewhat over shadowed by the above two releases, Louis and Ella brought special poignancy and clarity to these classic songs. Louis, of course, did not have the vocal range or the training to handle the score, but what he lacked in technique he more than made up for in heart and authenticity. “Summertime.” in particular, is turned into a moving meditation and Armstrong’s steamy solo on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is also memorable. While their first two collaborations were small-band, informal affairs, the Porgy and Bess sessions were with full orchestra. In fact the unsung hero of this 1957 recording is the arranger and conductor Russ Garcia who even added a ten and half minute overture.
Gentle, warm and sincere, an Ella-Louis aural back rub is deserving of a place in every home. As writer Doug Ramsey correctly stated, their collaborations are “an instruction manual for singers – phrasing, intonation, breath control, taste, musicianship, restraint and humor. It is all here.”