For some crazy reason…

…the folks at Decca Records let Ella Fitzgerald get away in 1955.

In his excellent A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers book, Will Friedwald theorizes that the Decca folks were showing deference to their star, but in an age when studios and record labels managed their talent with an iron fist it still seems odd to me.

Regardless, after selling ~22 million records for Decca, Ella partnered up with Norman Granz at his new Verve record label and began a collaboration that would last for decades and render arguably the best vocal jazz/standards recordings of all time.

Scores of Fitzgerald/Verve LP releases  — including some of the absolute best live/jam recordings I’ve ever heard — would follow but it’s the eight Song Book albums that came on the heels of Ella’s arrival at Verve that enchant me so.

Between 1956 and 1964…

…Ella teamed up with the finest arrangers/orchestra leaders of the era and recorded in turn the best material from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer … Eight phenomenal Song Book albums that paid tribute to the all time pantheon of popular standards songwriters and composers.

The upper echelon of composers and lyricists certainly numbers more than eight; Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Hammerstein, Mancini… many others fit the bill, but I don’t guess I’ll get much of an argument that, taken as a group, you simply can’t do better than the Ella Song book gang.

A Celebration of the Impossible…

Assembling all eight of the Song Book albums into Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books box set is an embarrassment of riches. It’s a celebration of the impossible — almost beyond comprehension.

I mean, you can intellectually comprehend it, but it’s sort of like Carl Sagan talking about “billions and billions of stars — as many stars as there are grains of sand on earth” … the words go in to your head and intellectually you think the universe is “big”, but you really can’t fathom it.

To have in one place 250+ hits and deep catalog pulls from the absolute top song craftsmen of all time, charted by the finest arrangers and sung by THE best vocalist to walk the planet … well, it’s literally overwhelming — an abundance that can only really be grasped on an emotional level — it’s just too much.

Where there was one, now there is eight…

My original plan to review Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books set in one sitting was utter folly. We’re talking about eight Song Book album releases that originally ranged from one to as many as five LPs in length!

Not only would it be a disservice to attempt a meaningful consolidated review of that much material — 16 CDs … 254 tracks — but the individual Ella Song Book LPs and the associated song writers DESERVE their own reckoning … their own discussion and exposure.

So to that end what was one is now eight; I will take the individual Song Book albums on for review and offer them in the order Ella recorded the LPs … starting next week with the Cole Porter Song Book and then make my way through Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and appropriately wrapping with the only lyricist Ella dedicated a Song Book to — Johnny Mercer.

A couple of things on the box set…

Though I’m not going to do a full review of this amazing and enormous box set here, there are some notions I’d like to leave you with regarding The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books set.

First, if you have the discretionary cash (~$220) and you’re an Ella fan (and who’s not?) … then buy the box. The assemblage is impressive and unique including of all the liner notes (in a microscopic font … but they’re there), some interesting additional album art/writings, a few fun out-takes from the recording sessions, and some very cool unreleased tracks sprinkled across the 16 CDs.

This 1993 release is a double Grammy Award winner (Best Historical Album, Best Design) for a reason. Quoting Will Friedwald on this box set (again from his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers book):

“With these eight sets (released in a sixteen-CD box in 1993) Fitzgerald left a definitive record of virtually every song that anybody would ever sing — and to a vast extent defined the parameters of what was becoming recognized as the Great American Songbook.”

A funny thing happened…

… on my way to this article. When my box set arrived from Amazon, the Johnny Mercer Song Book CD was missing; the Mercer Song Book sleeve was in the perfectly shrink wrapped package, but there was no Mercer CD. For those of you that know my affinity for Johnny Mercer (evidenced here and here) you can only imagine my apoplexy!

Amazon was stellar though; they overnighted me a replacement Mercer CD — actually sending me a 1997 remastered rerelease of the original Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book, and this brings me to my second thought on the box set.

Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books box set at $220 was tough for me to choke down — and I do this for a living! There are some advantages exclusive to the box that I’ve mentioned above but unless you’re really into this as a collector piece what might make sense is to collect the 1997 remastered reissued Song Book albums like the Mercer Song Book I fell into.

The reissues have augmented liner notes that are very interesting, and though I don’t have the original version to compare with the production quality/remastering of the ’97 releases sounds exceptional.

It not only would be easier to swallow Ella’s fabulous Song Book collection over time in $12 to $20 chunks, but I think the liner notes additions and remastered audio may make the “one song book at a time” plan the better way to go.

If you plan to go this route, take care to get the complete Song Book album reissues! Ella’s material has been reissued so many times it can be confusing. Don’t fall prey to the cheaper “Best of” albums that repackage 10-12 tracks off the original album … it’s good stuff but the truncated “Best of” track lists are just a shadow of the original.

[BTW, You can also find the 254 box set tracks as a digital download album from Amazon. That will knock off about $80 from the box set pricing, but with the total lack of album art or liner notes I didn’t find that a reasonable tradeoff.]

Sorry for the feint…

If you showed up here looking for a detailed review of The Ella Fitzgerald Song Books box set … sorry for the misdirection. It was just too much to bite off for a single review. Stop back by in the coming weeks as I review in a series each of the eight Song Book albums … it will be better this way!