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Box set review: Ella Fitzgerald's 'Twelve Nights in Hollywood'

December 10, 2009 |  5:33 pm
Ella_fitzgerald_240_ For a generation of listeners, the late Ella Fitzgerald exists perhaps as more of a concept than someone who was once a living human being. As the Beatles are to pop music, Fitzgerald is to jazz vocals, and the quality and influence of their respective outputs have become such a part of our cultural firmament that they seem easy to take for granted.

Now with a lushly packaged new box set, "Twelve Nights in Hollywood," Fitzgerald comes alive. Comprising four CDs that include 76 never-before-released live tracks recorded in 1961 and 1962, this set is not only a vital discovery for Fitzgerald fans, but also perhaps the best starting point for neophytes who never have had the opportunity to hear what exactly made her special.

The very fact that such a wealth of material remained unreleased to this point is somewhat startling. The story of the collection begins with the unconventional decision by Fitzgerald's longtime manager Norman Granz to record every set from Fitzgerald's 10-night run at Hollywood's 200-seat Crescendo Club, a cramped space on Sunset originally opened by singer Billy Eckstine in 1952 that also featured a dance club on the second floor.

Twelve selections from these shows were released later that year as "Ella in Hollywood," a solid if somewhat unremarkable sampling marred by the ghastly addition of canned crowd noise between songs, which canceled out the warm intimacy of the original recordings.

Now Verve has dipped into the vaults to cherry-pick the best of those lost recordings, which also includes previously undiscovered tapes of a two-night return engagement at the same club in 1962. Even spread out over four CDs, it's a testament to the wealth of material at Fitzgerald's disposal that there are no repeats in this box set.

What's most striking about these recordings -- apart from its star -- is the sound quality, which is crystal clear. At times you can practically see Ella during these performances framed by a halo of lighting and smoke, beaming through a lilting melody or sassily improvising about the sound of the dancing upstairs, as she does during the 1962 recordings.

Choosing highlights from the four hours included on the set is a bit daunting, but there are a few standout moments. A rollicking doo-wop spoof of "Blue Moon" brings down the house on disc two, with off-the-cuff lyrics that also include Ella working a sly apology into the melody with "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Vibrant takes on hits like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "How High the Moon" and "Mack the Knife" are also here, in addition to Fitzgerald favorites by Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin.

Her astonishing vocal control and ceaselessly inventive scatting get a workout at various points, including a ripping take on "Stomping at the Savoy" that has all the relentlessness drive of a cartoon locomotive. Elsewhere a completely bonkers version of "Joe Williams' Blues" incorporates rapid-fire snippets of "Fever," "Georgia on My Mind" and even a couple of commercial jingles.

She also shares an amusing gift for impressions as a swinging version of "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" -- listed on the box set as "Bill Bailey" and "Bill Bailey Reprise" -- from 1962 includes her singing in the style of Della Reese, Dinah Washington and even Louis Armstrong.

What most reliably shines in these recordings is the boundless joy Fitzgerald brought to her singing, the sense that she was having the time of her life. Luckily, through this vivid batch of intimate recordings, she's shares her time with us.

--Chris Barton

Ella Fitzgerald
"Twelve Nights in Hollywood"
Verve / Hip-O Select
Four stars (Out of four)