Though not the hoped-for third-act triumph, Ella and Oscar still has its enduring charms.
See, Oscar Peterson, a hard-banging piano genius as bluesy as he was inventive, should have made the perfect foil for Ella Fitzgerald on this stripped-down date, set for reissue on March 15 by Concord. It seems that too much time, however, had passed amongst these old friends. Fitzgerald's sizzling scats, always more musicianly than interpretive of a lyric, had fallen a beat behind by this point. You can, sometimes, hear an effort being made that was never there before.
Yet a determined Fitzgerald (and Peterson, as well, for that matter) retains this unyielding creativity, something that helps her overcome whatever ostacles posed by declining health. Combined with her pianist's densely harmonic contributions, she wills Ella and Oscar into its place as the best of a series of a 1970s collaborative records helmed by Norman Granz for his own Pablo labela list that includes Take Love Easy and Ella and Pass Again (with Joe Pass, 1973 then 1976), Dream Dancing (with Nelson Riddle, 1978) and A Perfect Match (with Count Basie, 1979).
Ella and Oscar boasts a quick start, kicking off with two of its most memorable successes.
First, there's Mean to Me," torn down to its undies from the Grammy award-winning version Ella did with Riddle in 1962. Peterson starts with a series of sweeping, dramatic arpeggiationsand his jaunty, virtuoso performance encourages Fitzgerald toward one of the album's swinging-est takes. When Ella lets loose at the end, crying and singing along, Peterson charges forward with herplaying with a blinding joy.
Next comes George Gershwin's How Long Has This Been Going On?," which deftly leverages the oaken tone of Fitzgerald's late-period singing. Perhaps the closest Ella and Oscar comes to a bonefide classic, she hurls herself into the darkest elements of the lyric. Meanwhile, Petersonopening up to the late-night blues of the momentallows some space into his famously, often brilliantly cluttered phrasing. He follows so closely along that you can almost hear him feint when Fizgerald feints, then waver when she wavers. That makes his subsequent solo, a pent-up burst of intellect and emotion, all the more dazzling. Then, just like that, Peterson leans in again, delicate and sure, as the nearly 60-year-old Fitzgerald gathers herself for a robustly despondent finale.
Thereafter, Ella and Oscar doesn't often surprise. There are a series of tunes that either don't match the moment, don't surpass earlier attempts or are unsuited (some too fast, some too complex) to a singer of her vintage. There are times, unfortunately, when Fitzgerald simply sounds her age.
That is, until Midnight Sun." Fitzgerald and Peterson, joined by the quietly impressive bassist Ray Brown, explore this familiar jazz standard with a bustling ambition. Oscar, initially, makes piercing runs on the piano but as Fitzgerald expands the lyric with all of the rising emotion and downward daring of a trumpeter, he begins to fall back into a lithe, personable rhythm. Ella ends up fashioning the most complete vocal on the album.
There remain, as Ella and Oscar coasts toward its conclusion, only this trio of tunes to fully recommend. Yet, inside of them, we still have something to celebrate: Fitzgerald and Peterson were still fighting against the dying of the light.
Occasionally, they push the curtain all the way back. We see them, as they once were, but perhaps more importantly as they were right then: Two performers who, even as they reached an autumnal crossroads, could still rise to achieve moments of unequivocal skill and boundless improvisational instinct.
And, with both Ella and Oscar now long gone, that's gift enough.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.