Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald in Budapest
The year is 1970, and Ella is changing. The girlish voice is beginning to fray, and at times a faint rasp sneaks in. It becomes another weapon, giving some words urgency and other words charm. Her repertoire is mostly “modern”, with three tunes from Burt Bacharach. Her brief stay at Reprise Records had stressed such material, and here it works – mostly. And some things never change: the frantic scatting, the swift imagination, and ferocious interplay with her trio. She was definitely “on” this night, and the massive applause isn’t enough.
The piano starts right when Ella takes the stage; you can tell ‘cause the crowd starts to cheer. “Crazy Rhythm” is quickly dispensed, with fast leaps and high spirits. There’s a bit about the evening’s program (‘good songs, bad songs, true songs, new songs!”) then the tune returns – as a gracious waltz. Tommy Flanagan then hits a funk vamp, and Ella gets another rap (“It’s your thing, what you wanna do/ Aretha Franklin and Tom Jones too!”) The song briefly returns, and the crowd begins. We’ve gone a long way in three minutes, and the pace rarely lets up.
“Welcome to our show,” she says, in a voice both humble and – nervous? “We have some new songs, some old ones, and some of the now sounds.” One of these, “This Guy’s in Love with You”, gets a creamy reading, full of warm vibrato. It melts into “Write Myself a Letter”, using the Bacharach chords. It’s a nice touch, and hear the good bass in this passage. Nilsson’s “Open Your Window” is breathy and smooth, with her first lengthy scat. She’s a trumpet in the center, and at the end tears off a drum solo (“click –shomp bomp – dooby dooby...”)
A shimmering “Satin Doll”, and then “Spinning Wheel”, the only misfire of the evening. The words sound silly from her lips, and she has little chance with a lyric that needs a rock delivery. But this soon passes: while the applause remains “As Time Goes By” comes in, soft as a dream (“To cool you off,” she says later) as just as lovely. The mix of old and new is a jolt, partly from what she chooses. (It’s surprising how well the Bacharach tunes compare to the standards.) And when she returns to the old, it’s like a hug from a friend. And you feel it all right.
With seamless grace “I Concentrate on You” becomes a medley, joined beautifully with “You Go To My Head”. (She sings “How can you hear me with your clicking?” to Flanagan; at the end she says “you’re throwing me off...” under her breath.) She does her own clicking on “Girl from Ipanema”, a percussion interlude shifting to a rambunctious reading, throwing in other sambas at the end. (This was later reworked into “The Bossa Scene”, a feature using many of these songs.) This particular scene is worth making!
“Dancing in the Dark” has a nice edgy vamp at the end; Ella turns it into “That Old Black Magic”. “Raindrops Keep Falling” wears a big smile, and she recovers nicely from a bad cough at the end. (Flanagan starts playing “Oh Happy Day”, and Ella runs with it.) “The Lady is a Tramp” goes fast with the rare verse, and the elegant words twinkle as she says them. “Summertime” is low and lubricious, Flanagan ringing from a distant shore. It’s simple, and stands out on its own.
The band comes through on “Mr. Paganini”; the bass is sly and Tommy has fun with the fast part. “Mack the Knife” doesn’t have her German lyrics, but it does have “12th Street Rag”, “On the Trail”, “Symphony Sid”, “Work Song”, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”! In a Louis Armstrong voice she signs off, introduces the band, and quotes “That’s My Desire” – all in that voice. The encore is “People”; it’s a bit sappy but it fits, a soft fluffy cloud to drift away on. And there it ends: a special performance from one who kept doing it night after night.