Ella Fitzgerald, Ella at Zardi's (Verve).
Marlon Brando loved her. But then who didn't? And doesn't? But Brando showed up for Ella Fitzgerald's three-week gig at Zardi's Jazzland in Los Angeles. The place was around the corner from Capitol Records' recording studio -- an important fact which explains a lot of what you'll hear on this 1956 live recording finally released to the world.
Ella has always been deferential to her audiences but she's unusually obsequious here. She was always ready to please but with this audience, she took requests right and left, even when she claimed not to know the songs' words. What you're hearing, I'm sure, is Ella with an audience full of musicians and record biz functionaries, all of whom she no doubt wanted to impress on her first live recording for Verve records. Does someone want "Gone With the Wind" even though she claims not to know the words? Sure, she'll do it if the words are supplied as she sings. And, yes, damnably, she sings her big hit "A Tisket a Tasket" too, despite its ability to infantilize one of the greatest singers jazz will ever have as if she were a Shirley Temple wannabe. But then the song's co-composer Van Alexander is in the audience. Forgetting words and seeming to make them up on the spot became great Ella shtick over the years (listen to "Ella in Berlin") even though she may well have known some she claimed not to.
The pianist Don Abney isn't even close to the level of her greatest pianists (Jimmy Rowles, Tommy Flanagan, Paul Smith) but Frankie Capp is a prime West Coast jazz drummer under any and all circumstances. What was intended for release as her first live record for Verve was overwhelmed by the release of a little masterpiece called "Ella Sings Cole Porter" the official beginning of the songbooks. The songbooks have often blotted out the sun in her career but hearing this for the first time after all these years is pure joy. No matter how limited the pianist and how large the obsequiousness, these are some of her greatest years and she is charming, lovable and musically spectacular all the way through it. A magnificent addition to the Ella discography.
4 stars (out of four)