Ella Fitzgerald – Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife

Ella Fitzgerald – Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife
Released 1960

Man, I love jazz. And this is the best kind of jazz; upbeat, sassy, and fun, with just the right amount of improvisation without being annoying or boring. I’m always thinking to myself that I need to expand my Jazz music collection, so when I got the chance to listen and review Ella Fitzgerald, I was super excited. I haven’t really listened to much Ella in the past, but had always wanted to. And I was not disappointed, not one little bit. Ella Fitzgerald – and live, to boot – is an absolute joy to listen to and I can wholeheartedly concede that “Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife” more than deserves it’s place in the Grammy Hall of Fame (for its historical significance) and it’s award of Best Female Vocal performance (awarded at the 3rd Annual Grammy awards).

Recorded live in concert in Berlin during a tour of Europe, “Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife” was released in 1960. The band was made up of Paul Smith on piano (I wish I could play the keys like this guy!), Jim Hall on guitar, Wilfred Middlebrooks on double bass and Gus Johnson on drums. There’s not a lot to say about the band. They’re extremely tight, and follow Fitzgerald’s cues to perfection, essentially providing a fantastic canvas for Fitzgerald’s vocal, after all she’s really the star here; her voice is the lead instrument.

You can tell from this live recording that Ella Fitzgerald loved her craft immensely and that the crowd absolutely was eating out of the palm of her hand. She talks to them through song and when she forgets the lyrics (which is often), she changes the lyrics in such a way as to engage the crowd and they go crazy for it. I wish I could have been present at this performance. Ella sings with such ease and agility, she’s confident and she’s cheeky. Her grasp of vocal tonality and unprecedented ability to use her voice the way an instrumentalist uses their trumpet, changed the way I will think about scat singing forever.

My favourite track on the album is the title track, ‘Mack the Knife’. Until this live performance, this song was largely performed by men, but Ella’s vocal range and strength allowed her to do it justice. I loved that famous part where she forgot the lyrics to the second chorus but just kept going with it and making up funny lyrics, essentially admitting that she’d wrecked the song, before spiraling fluidly into a fantastic raucous scat interlude akin to Louis Armstrong’s throaty improvisations.

‘How High the Moon’ is also a track which just takes it to a new level (pardon the pun), and demonstrates Fitzgerald’s vocal skills; she had a very rare vocal range spanning 3 octaves, and clearly a healthy set of lungs, the woman barely stopped for a breath in this extremely up-tempo 300 BPM remake of a song originally written as a be-bop ballad. Once again Fitzgerald’s improvisational skills are on show as she makes up the lyrics and finishes with a marathon 3 minute (and then some more) scat solo that has been noted in history as one of the best of its kind, in jazz music. She even managed to include clever verbatim referencing ‘Ornithology’, a song written by Charlie Parker that is based on the original jazz standard of ‘How High the Moon’. Seriously it just blew me away.

There has been contention over the years as to whether Ella Fitzgerald was a pop singer or a jazz singer.  My answer to that is, listen to this album and tell me that she wasn’t a jazz singer. Her grasp of the jazz standard, her use of phrasing and use of the voice as an instrument are all techniques akin to jazz greats.

“Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife” would be a good album to play to someone who isn’t really that keen on jazz, because as I said earlier, it’s really quite fun and the improvised parts are not too self-indulgent  – if anything, they leave you wanting more. The album has bucket loads of personality and makes for easy listening. A great soundtrack for cleaning, cooking or a dinner party – this one’s a keeper, it’s staying on the iPod.

The biggest hurdle for me on this album is that I find most of the tracks boring. I can appreciate the amazing talent of Ella Fitzgerald as well as her excellent and intuitive backing band, but it’s not music that I find pleasure in. I think my feelings about Ella, and to an extent, jazz itself, are best summed up by Community’s Jeff Winger likening religion to Paul Rudd: “I see the appeal, and I would never take it away from anyone. But I would never stand in line for it.” For me, this album is a piece of fruit you begrudgingly eat so you can get back to the spaghetti bolognaise. That apple sure is good for your body and all, but it is not satisfying. I don’t need to hear yet another version of ‘Summertime’ or ‘Misty’ and I don’t like nearly being put to sleep by ‘The Man I Love’. The best thing about this album is the reason it’s famous: Ella’s cover of ‘Mack the Knife’, a song that many consider a classic but I find incredibly overrated. Despite starting off well, she soon forgets the lyrics, and begins singing about not knowing the words, creatively lamenting her predicament. It’s quite wonderful and it put a big smile on my face when I first listened to it. The second best thing is the album’s closer, ‘How High the Moon’, which features a jaw-dropping scat performance from Ella. I also like the guttural way she sings “and pitch the woo with my baby tonight” on Cole Porter’s wonderful ‘Too Darn Hot’. If this type of music is your thing, then I think you will absolutely love it. I can’t see myself listening to this album again, but I can understand why it is so highly regarded.

Ella, Ella, Ella. Where do we even start with this week’s album? Ella Fitzgerald is without a doubt one of the most influential jazz vocalists. The fact she was a woman in a man’s world makes that all the more significant. Over her 59 year recording career she recorded 70 odd albums with over 20 of those being live recordings. “Ella in Berlin: Mack the Knife” is known as one of Fitzgerald’s finer live recordings and is somewhat infamous for her improvised version of ‘Mack the Knife’ after forgetting the lyrics. That’s the history out of the way. Now I really tried with this album. I listened to it intently with headphones. I listened to it intently without headphones. I listened to it in the car by myself. I listened to it in the car with others. I put it on as background music. But try as I might, I just don’t like this style of music. That doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate that it’s a good album. Ella was 43 when she recorded this album, so she knew her way around the stage. Vocally she is on the mark the whole time. The way she improvises on ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘How High the Moon’ is something else. As for the scatting… it’s clear the woman was a freak. I however just don’t really dig it. This whole crooner style of jazz is kind of like heavy metal for me. You either love it or you hate it. By all means grab yourself a copy and have a listen, because there are a whole heap of people out there who think this is an awesome album. Shucks, grab it just to listen to ‘Mack the Knife’ alone. I’m afraid it just really doesn’t float my boat.

I’m pretty glad I listened to this album. Ella Fitzgerald has an amazing voice! I’d never paid much attention to her really. Obviously I’d heard of her, and knew she was one of those legends of music, but I couldn’t tell you anything she’d done. But I guess that’s why afyccim is so important! I will say though, that this album was seriously tough going for me. It really does go on. Especially ‘How High The Moon’. It goes for nearly seven minutes, but really it’s worth about two. When Ella starts scatting I kind of feel like Vince Noir when Howard Moon starts scatting at him…  There are some excellent points to the album though. Ella’s version of the song Sinatra made famous, ‘Lady is a Tramp’ is quite brilliant. Obviously Sinatra’s song is written about a girl from a man’s point of view, so Ella’s changed the lyrics so the song is about her. She also rhymes turkey with Albuquerque, which gets big lyric points from me. It’s a fast paced song and feels exciting and energetic. Though weirdly, the ‘Lady is a Tramp’ is followed directly by ‘The Man I Love’, which is a lovely song, but it is boring as hell… And “Ella in Berlin” sure has a few more songs that live comfortably in the beautiful but boring category, including ‘Love For Sale’ and ‘Summertime’. But where there are boring ones, there’s equalling fun tracks, like ‘It’s Too Darn Hot’ and ‘Just One of Those Things’. I find it quite interesting that not one song on this album is an original, with three of them written by George and Ira Gershwin… Though the crowd don’t seem to have any problem with it! Sorry Ella, you won’t be staying. I just can’t handle the scatting.

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