Some albums mark a decade. Others mark a generation. And others go far beyond all that, managing to change the face of music history forever. «Ella And Louis» is just such an album.
When the first «race» records were produced in the late 1920’s, no one could predict their runaway success. The black community had never had their music on record before, and copies sold like hotcakes. New artists appeared every hour, making this music’s first real «trend». However, as is usually the case with fads, the turds were soon separated from the genuinely good artists, and only a few remained. Among these, the most prominent was probably Bessie Smith, who, on her first few sessions, was accompanied by a cornetist by the name of Louis Armstrong. Despite being a mere backup artist, Armstrong delivered imaginative, original cornet lines which greatly enhanced the songs. Recording-company executives immediately knew they had something special on their hands.
But Louie was to prove a bigger success that even they had expected: the man could sing, too. What’s more, he had a raspy, deep-drawling voice which contrasted beautifully with the more «peasant», whiny voices of artists like Robert Johnson. Plus, the fact he played cornet rather than guitar or piano added to the originality, making Armstrong a «must-sign» item.
Debuting in the early 1930’s with «When It’s Sleepy Time Down South» ( one of his best-known songs to this day), Louie involuntarily found himself bridging the gap between the first generation of blues singers and the new artists that were showing up in the 30’s and 40’s. These new «cats» weren’t exceedingly interested in playing the blues; they preferred to fool around with their instruments creating an entirely new sound that relied heavily on improvisation and technique. They called it «jazz».
Among jazz’s new rising stars, a few stood out. One «gal» in particular seemed gifted with a gargantuan set of pipes and a prodigious scatting ability. Her name" Ella Fitzgerald.
By the time Verve got them together in a studio, both Fitzgerald and Armstrong were already established performers. The first had recorded such hits as «A-Tisket, A-Tasket» and «Lullaby In Birdland» ; the latter was one of the most influential names of the budding jazz scene. To have them make an album together seemed like a more than logical idea.
But the ending result of this experience was far more than a sales ploy: it went on to become one of the hallmarks of jazz, and if possible made Ella and Satchmo even MORE respected within the jazz circles. Listening to it today, it is easy to understand why.
Benefiting of the «crème de la crème» of jazz accompanists at the time, Ella and Louis go through a spot-on selection of standards and previous hits with grace and panache. The chemistry between them is evident from the moment «Can’t We Be Friends» starts playing, and is never once lost through the remainder of the album. Ella’s airy, almost innocent voice provides perfect contrast with Louie’s warm, friendly drawl, making the numbers here far more interesting than if they were sung solo. Take «Can’t We Be Friends», for example: while Ella is pining about slipping up with her lover, Louie is afraid to ask her to be his woman. This helps provide a contrast that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. In fact, when sung as a duet, the song takes on an entirely new dimension, showing that men and women don’t actually think as differently as we believe.
But enthralling moments on this one are anything but few and far between. The most charming is perhaps «Cheek to Cheek»,where Ella and Louis share the intimacy that only long-time lovers can experience…without actually being lovers! A close second is «They Can’t Take That Away From Me», where Louis gives a lesson in cavalry and panache, while at the same time delivering one of those scorching solos on his trumpet. In this song, Ella is actually humbled by Satchmo’s performance – a rare occurrence on this album, where the two are usually on a qualitative par.
To round up the album are other fine selections such as «Moonlight In Vermont» ( a slower track where it’s Ella’s turn to shine) or «April In Paris», Ella’s flagship song, which closes one of the best albums in music history.
It’s easy to understand why «Ella and Louis« became such an important, influential album. It is extremely hard – if not impossible – to find another jazz album where the chemistry is as strong and effective as it is here. In fact, not even Ella and Louis’ later collaborations manage to work as nicely as this, their first.
So, as I said, some records transcend the test of time and become hallmarks of history rather than mere records. This is one of them. Simply marvellous.