At the end of 2017, Verve Records unveiled Ella at Zardi’s, a previously unreleased live recording of an Ella Fitzgerald club date from February 1956. Excitement ran high over the album, believed to be Fitzgerald’s first live record ever. Until now.
Radio journalist Phil Schaap was routing around in the Verve Records vault when he found some uncatalogued tracks from an unknown Fitzgerald performance. They turned out to be a recording of a Fitzgerald show at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium in January 1956, a little more than a week before the Zardi’s recording and presumably with the same band. Norman Granz, Fitzgerald’s prescient manager and the founder of Verve, had recorded the Shrine gig, too. Astounding.
In November 2018 Verve released these newly discovered tracks as Ella at the Shrine, a short recording of just seven songs. Each is an oft-heard Fitzgerald classic, though in this early performance the mood is lighter than on other recordings of these same tunes. (These seven also appear on the Zardi’s record.)
The disc opens with applause—it sounds like a full house—as Fitzgerald settled into “’S Wonderful,” her voice sparkling and her intonation true. The set as it progressed from this Geshwin gem was clearly all about in-the-pocket swing, with “Cry Me A River,” as a ballad with a bouncing groove; a spry “Lullaby of Birdland” (alas, minimal scatting); a touching “Glad to be Unhappy“; And the Angels Sing” in a double-time feel; and Fitzgerald’s self-penned tune, “Joe Williams’s Blues,” with its endearing lyrics about singing with Count Basie’s band.
Fitzgerald closed the Shrine set with her usual finale, “Air Mail Special,” the only number on the record that highlighted the singer’s indomitable soloing, remarkable for its speed and precision. A year later she would reprise the tune at the Newport Festival in a stunning performance that Granz also captured for a live album (Ella Fitzgerald & Billie Holiday at Newport, Verve).
The disc concludes with an announcement by Granz—Ella has to get back to Zardi’s for her set that night. “I’m sorry, she’s gone,” he tells the crowd. Now, with this album, she’s back.
Tracks: ‘S Wonderful; Cry Me A River; Lullaby of Birdland; Glad to be Unhappy; And the Angels Sing; Joe Williams’s Blues; Air Mail Special; Norman Granz Announcement.
Personnel: Ella Fitzgerald, vocals. Possibly Don Abney, piano; Vernon Alley or Joe Mandragon, bass; Frank Capp, drums.
(Reprinted from July 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record)