THE SPECIAL PLACE WHERE ELLA FITZGERALD COMES ALIVE ~ NYT

The singer’s concert recordings have always had a power that her studio outings could only imply. “Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes,” a newly unearthed 1962 performance, magnifies her legacy.

In 1962, Ella Fitzgerald performed in Berlin. Norman Granz, her manager and Verve Records’s founder, stashed the recordings away; they were uncovered earlier this year.
In 1962, Ella Fitzgerald performed in Berlin. Norman Granz, her manager and Verve Records’s founder, stashed the recordings away; they were uncovered earlier this year.Credit…Rolf Ambor

By Giovanni Russonello

  • Oct. 1, 2020

Ella Fitzgerald hardly ever crooned the blues, and her vocals rarely overflowed with pathos or fury. Listening to her nail a ballad, you may not feel invited to leap into her own world and feel her pain, like you would with Billie Holiday or Little Jimmy Scott.

You could say that Fitzgerald was to singing what Yo-Yo Ma is to the cello: utter perfection, personified. Fitzgerald thinks of the note, she hits the note. She learns the song, she becomes the song. Still, there’s a sacred exchange going on. Rather than beckoning you in, Fitzgerald is bringing the music to you. And the effect is undeniable — you’re disarmed.

It makes sense, then, that Fitzgerald’s live recordings have always had a special power that her studio outings could only imply. As her biographer Stuart Nicholson put it, the best ones “reveal the real Ella, bringing pleasure to others by bringing pleasure to herself.”

Of those live albums, few made a longer-lasting impression than “Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin,” from 1960, widely considered one of her greatest captures. And this week, the pleasure grows: On Friday the Verve Label Group will release “Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes,” documenting a concert that she gave there two years after her famed first appearance. Taken together with “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” an informative documentary released on digital platforms earlier this month, it’s a worthy invitation to engage anew with a singer whose constant improvisations — equal parts precision and profusion — are all too easy to take for granted.

On the album, Fitzgerald is in her mid-40s, and well established as popular music royalty. Hear the breadth and depth of her vibrato, the way she uses strong breath to give rhythmic passages a punch, how she reinvents the melody to Ray Charles’s “Hallelujah! I Love Her So” as if her voice were a saxophone with words.

The Grammy-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, 31, said that as a student she saw Fitzgerald’s famed studio albums devoted to the Great American Songbook as an exemplar of flawless jazz singing. “Initially she was this model of perfection, and sort of the blueprint when learning a standard,” Ms. Salvant said in a phone interview.

“My appreciation for her is shifting now, in that I see how fun she is, how much of a risk-taker she is, how much humor she brings to her performances,” added Ms. Salvant, who created the animations for a music video that accompanies “Taking a Chance on Love” from the new album. “For me, a live setting is the best way to hear her.”

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