On 4 September 1956 Ella Fitzgerald began work on one of the most ambitious albums of her career – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. It was her third songbook of the year, which began with the Cole Porter Songbook and The Rodgers and Hart Songbook.
Ella finished The Rodgers and Hart Songbook less than a week before she began the Ellington project and when she did she recorded 15 tracks on that September day. It was cut at Capitol Studio in Los Angeles and one of the highlights of that day’s session was ‘In a Sentimental Mood’, the fourteenth of fifteen tracks completed, which features just Ella and Barney Kessel’s brilliant guitar accompaniment.
Among the other tracks Ella recorded on 4 September was one of the composer’s best known songs, ‘Satin Doll’; accompanying Ella are tenor saxophonist, Ben Webster, violinist, Stuff Smith, Paul Smith on piano, Barney Kessel, Joe Mondragon on bass and drummer Alvin Stoller.
As the New York Times said of the Songbook series, “These albums were among the first pop records to devote such serious attention to individual songwriters, and they were instrumental in establishing the pop album as a vehicle for serious musical exploration.”
Eight months later on 24 June 1957, Ella was back in the studio, this time with Duke Ellington and his orchestra to record his theme song, ‘Take The A Train’. It features the incredible saxophone line up of, Johnny Hodges (alto sax) Russell Procope (alto sax) Paul Gonsalves (tenor sax) and Harry Carney (baritone sax). More sessions followed over the next three days, but such was the scope of the album that it was still not complete.
Following an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on Independence Day, Verve’s owner and Ella’s manager, Norman Granz, decided to capitalise on the success of the Ella & Louis album by repeating the formula, with Ella & Louis Again.
In September, Ella was back out on the road with Jazz at The Philharmonic and when the tour was over in October she returned to Capitol Studios to record with Frank DeVol, for the album, Like Someone In Love. Two days later on 17 October, work resumed on The Duke Ellington Songbook when Ella recorded ‘Mood Indigo’ with Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Alvin Stoller.
On 3 September 1957 Duke and his Orchestra recorded a piece composed for the album by Billy Strayhorn that was entitled, Portrait of Ella, a work in four movements. It, along with another Strayhorn instrumental, took up the final side of the second double album.
Work was finally complete on the Ellington Songbook and this frenzy of recording meant that Ella recorded close to one hundred tracks in 1957.
The album was released in two volumes; the first volume comprised Fitzgerald with the Ellington orchestra, the second of Fitzgerald with a small group setting.
It’s consummate vocal jazz and something that should be in every jazz lover’s collection.
Follow the Ella Fitzgerald Best Of playlist for more Ella standards.