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Listening Report: Ella Fitzgerald At The Hollywood Bowl

Mark Smotroff sets the wayback machine to appreciate a 21st century release…

You can certainly simply put on the newly released live album by Ella Fitzgerald — Ella At The Hollywood Bowl — and enjoy it in its own right. But, you might do yourself a favor to do a little bit of “homework” listening to the albums that inspired the concert in the first place. 

In the mid 1950s, Jazz impresario, manager and producer Norman Granz had a very clear vision for his new client Ella Fitzgerald. He believed she had the power to break through to major concert hall stages, taking her career to a very different level.  Part of Granz’ master plan was to have Ella record music which is now known commonly as “The Great American Songbook.”  But in the mid-1950s, this music was still relatively fresh in the public mindset — some of these now iconic writers were still alive and working including George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and many others. 

The first album she recorded — the May 1956 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook — was such a success that she went on to record seven more artist-specific collections up until 1964. That first album won a special Grammy in 2000 and is now in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

By the time she made Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Irving Berlin Song Book, Ella’s recordings were no doubt selling very well. Conducted and arranged by the super-talented but decidedly mainstream leaning Paul Weston (husband of singer Jo Stafford), the album has a fine and gentle swing to it.

Not widely known for his jazz chops (he was in Tommy Dorsey’s band for a while in the 1940s), Weston was certainly a gifted player and arranger who knew jazz well enough to construct in the form. Heck, he knew it well enough to even deconstruct it! If you don’t believe me on the latter point, seek out the first album of jazz-pop standards credited to faux bad lounge performers Jonathan & Darlene Edwards on Columbia Records… which was actually Weston and Stafford. It takes a lot of skill play that badly and off-key intentionally! By 1960 they subsequently won a Grammy for best comedy album. 

Point is, Weston knew jazz and pop which made him an ideal choice for producing one of Ella’s songbook collections, especially the catalog of Irving Berlin

For those not familiar with Mr. Berlin, he wrote many standards including “How Deep Is The Ocean,” “Cheek To Cheek,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Russian Lullaby,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”  What’s that you say? You’ve never heard “anyone” in “your era” do those songs?  Um… well, let me cite a few names you might know who have covered Mr. Berlin’s songs: The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia (“Russian Lullaby”), Lady Gaga (“Cheek To Cheek”), Bob Dylan (“What’ll I Do,” “How Deep Is The Ocean”), Michael Buble (“White Christmas”) and even Leonard Cohen (“Always”).  

Point is, Berlin is a songwriting legend and Ella delivers many fantastic versions of his compositions on the studio album. And on the live album — Ella At The Hollywood Bowl —  those songs come to life with a bit more of that on-the-edge vibe which only a live performance in front of an audience can deliver.  

Ella At The Hollywood Bowl is — believe it or not — her first full concert recording issued from this particular and legendary venue, which is kind of amazing given that she had performed there many times over the course of her life and career.  The venue’s website even has a page dedicated to Ella — click here to jump to it — noting that “Fitzgerald holds the rare distinction of having sold out the Hollywood Bowl’s 18,000 seats in each of five decades, from the 1950s through the 1990s.”  

Given that Ella only worked with Weston for this one record, it makes this finding all the more appealing and rare. It was the first and only time she did something like this.  

According to the liner notes, prior to finding this tape in the personal collection of producer Norman Granz, it wasn’t known that Ella had ever even performed any of the songbook series tracks in a live setting with the full orchestral arrangements.  

Again, this is significant to consider as these days it is a trendy (and often unrealistic and unfair) fan expectation — especially among older bands — for artists and bands to perform entire albums in sequence with all the production bells and whistles.  

Ella did the full album thing more than 60 years ago, kiddies!

All these factors convene to make Ella At The Hollywood Bowl a very special archival release, indeed. That her performance is excellent doesn’t hurt at all, again, bringing this music up a few notches energy-wise from the studio renditions. 

Sonics wise, Ella At The Hollywood Bowl sounds very good all things considered — it is after all a 60-plus year old analog tape captured from the soundboard, recorded live without a net. I enjoyed listening to it on vinyl a bit more than I did the high resolution 96 kHz, 24-bit stream on Qobuz (click here) which sounded a bit bright. So the vinyl presentation helps to warm things up — a little bit. Curiously, the album was not completely available yet on Tidal but the couple of songs that are there (click here) sounded a bit less bright (if you will), streaming at 48 kHz, 24-bit resolution.  It is also streaming on Apple Music (click here for Hi Res Lossless).

I do suspect this original tape source was digitally remastered for this release. In the album liner notes, a company called Izotope — which manufactures digital audio workstation type software — is credited. I don’t view this as necessarily bad but the result is a more modern sounding release than one might expect from a 1958 live concert captured on analog reel-to-reel tape. This production style is probably a 21st century necessity if this recording was to have any chance at a life on the Internet as well as modern day radio and TV applications. So, analog purists do set your expectations accordingly.

In the world of Grateful Dead tape traders, this is what people used to call “a crisp soundboard.” 

An archival release recorded in another time and place, Ella’s vocals are the focus here. While the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra is certainly very audible, it sounds like there were probably a limited number of microphones used (which is perhaps why Norman Granz didn’t release it back in the day). The horn section and strings at times feel a little distant, yet in the recording engineers’ attempt to deliver clarity, certain instruments like the Harp sound a bit too hot in the mix (check it out on “You’re Laughing At Me”). 

I was sent a standard weight black vinyl pressing for review purposes and it sounds fine: quiet and generally well centered. There are several colored vinyl variant versions of Ella At The Hollywood Bowl available including a pink one from Vinyl Me Please (click here) and a neat purple splatter version from Jazz Centerstage (click here). The album comes with a lovely full color booklet that helps in the appreciation of this concert recording. 

All in all Ella At The Hollywood Bowl is a fine release and if you are a long time — or new — Ella fan you’ll likely want to add this to your collection. 

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