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Ella appears in all her splendour
on 29 November 2000
This is an album of the most magical, achingly beautiful music-making. It really is one of those records which, in the words of one of the numbers so lusciously performed here, "makes a cloudy day sunny." There was no kind of popular song written between 1920 and 1960 that Ella Fitzgerald couldn't handle, and as a result, it's almost absurd to compare one of her albums with another. However, for sheer, transcendent beauty it's hard to beat this set of gorgeously rendered ballads. For what it's worth, it would be one of about five discs I would try to save from a house fire.
Ella Fitzgerald's 'concept' albums of the late 1950s and early '60s for the Verve label are all at least the equal of Frank Sinatra's, pressed for Capitol during the same years. In this one, as in a set of up-beat numbers released at about the same time, Ella is abetted by Sinatra's most brilliant arranger, Nelson Riddle. His total commitment to the special qualities of each singer with whom he worked, and to the special ethos of each project, is neatly shown by comparing his arrangement of 'She's Funny That Way' on this album with his backing for the same song on Sinatra's 'Nice 'n' Easy', recorded the previous year. The settings are almost unbelievably unlike one another, and yet each, in its own way, is true to the spirit of the song. Riddle's charts on 'Ella Swings Gently' are, surely, some of the very best he ever wrote. The orchestral texture is intoxicating: brilliant chords from the brass are splashed across the silky background of his lilting string lines. The result is a sound that is as colourful as Ella's voice, complementing flawlessly the warmth and sensuousness of her singing here. Though the mood and tone are consistent, Riddle never repeats himself: each number surprises and delights, and every hearing seems to reveal new splendours.
The glory of the human voice, as Sinatra and Fitzgerald both realised, is that it can mimic and surpass the effects produced by virtually any instrument in the orchestra. In this album, Ella's timbre is as effortlessly liquid and limpid as the smoothest reed solos from such colleagues as Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves. And in terms of range, of course, Ella has the advantage, for she can caress notes at either end of the register without any loss of resonance.
There is not a single indifferent song on this album, and never do the standards of musicianship from any of the performers waver: 'Ella Swings Gently' is perfection's self throughout. It's not even easy to pick out one track that is better than the others, but special acknowledgement is, perhaps, demanded by 'Body and Soul,' a touchstone of the jazz musician's art since the '20s. This was the last in the original line-up (it's now followed by two bonus tracks) and was obviously meant to form a fitting climax to the LP. Certainly, Ella pulls out all the stops: though understated, her performance of this song is filled with infinite yearning and veiled sadness of a kind that only she could convey. It might have been a fitting climax not only to the record, but to her career. Fortunately, it was not - there were golden years ahead for her. But this number, like the album as a whole, is a pearl beyond price.