Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (1959), 6/10

A vocalist at the height of her powers backed by a formidable orchestra, headed by the legendary Nelson Riddle. I prefer his more intimate, melancholic stylings, but the orchestra rises to the occasion for this monstrous collection of songs. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book’s five volume album is a serious undertaking, but well worth its over three-hour runtime, either as ambiance or even as a decently nuanced listening experience in focus. It’s nice to see a rhumba represented in the first section of a vocal jazz album, and the latter half of this track illustrates just how powerful a fully present and honed-in big band can be, even in an adventitious motif. Fitzgerald is in her element singing songs of this persuasion which adds to the appeal, the record becomes a joyous and lush melding of voice and elegant instrumentation. Many of the songs may not be earth shattering or even anything new, but they are far more pleasant and tantalizing than much of the vocal jazz of the time. The band adds that extra touch that creates a refreshingly unique atmosphere against Ella’s dignified yet authentic approach to performance on these songs. Of course, there are a slew of great individual vocal performances, whether it is the boastful style of a track like “The Man I Love”, the fun and stylistic “The Real American Folk Song” or the delicacy of “A Foggy Day”. The melodies themselves can be hit or miss, but the majority are good enough and there is very rarely a performance lacking the power to balance out even the least interesting writing on the album. The arrangements are all put together with clear intentionality, illustrated well with the balance of a gentle orchestra from “For You For Me For Evermore” in juxtaposition against a tight yet jovially wonky “Stiff Upper Lip” just after. There are moments lacking novelty after such a long record, but the album flow is arranged expertly to ebb and flow with the natural energy that keeps things moving with ample momentum, so that the low moments feel like a pallet cleanser rather than a moment of weakness. This is surprising when considering such a long vocal jazz record, in theory, sounds like a big snooze. This speaks even further to Fitzgerald’s talent and range, and especially to the intentionality behind the album’s creation over an eight-month recording period and the subsequent release, all in 1959. All praise aside, this is still a record beholden to its narrow style, so it is only as good as its aesthetic in the end. Surely, still one of the greats of the genre.