How’s this for perfect pitch? Jim Hall said he tuned his guitar to Ella Fitzgerald’s voice. “If it was a choice between her and the piano, I would go for her!” Hall’s tenure with Ella was fairly brief, but it included the European tour that yielded one of her most celebrated concert recordings, Ella in Berlin. He said she was “a stunning performer…and awfully good musically.” The late guitarist recalled that as they traveled between gigs on buses and trains, “A lot times I would just accompany her on guitar, just screwing around…that was fun.”
Alas, it was a missed opportunity that Ella and Hall never recorded a duo session, for some of her most moving work during her prime was done in that barebones format with pianists Ellis Larkins in 1950 and ’53, and Paul Smith in 1960. (In the mid-70’s, she recorded a handful of duos with Oscar Peterson.) A precedent for Ella and solo guitar was established in 1957 when she recorded “Azure,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “(In My) Solitude” with Barney Kessel for her Duke Ellington Songbook.
In 1973, Norman Granz virtually launched Pablo Records with the first of what proved to be four studio albums with Ella and Joe Pass. Ella and Joe first appeared together at Carnegie Hall for that year’s Newport-in-New York Jazz Festival, then a month later recorded Take Love Easy. Pass told Ella’s biographer Stuart Nicholson, “The first album I did with her, we went into a studio and Norman Granz brought a bunch of tunes in, lead sheets, songs. I had no idea whether she’d want to rehearse or what keys she sang in. But she just picked a tune like ‘Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.’ I said, ‘What key?’ She said, ‘Well…’ and just sort of hummed a little bit. I found the key, and we just did a whole album like that…I could change keys with her, anything I wanted to do. She’s just there, she hears it, no problem! It’s like another musician…sort of like a horn player.”
Granz’s biographer Tad Herschorn says Ella needed encouragement from Granz before consenting to the session with Pass, but she was so impressed with the result that she knew he’d be a major part of the rest of her career. Here’s a shining example of their rapport on “Stormy Weather,” from a concert in Hannover, Germany in 1975. You can watch the entire concert here on YouTube. It begins with a set of Joe Pass guitar solos; Ella enters at 27:20 to sing “You Took Advantage of Me.”
Today is Ella’s 97th birthday anniversary. We’ll hear the First Lady of Song with Pass, Kessel, Larkins, and Smith in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.