Of all the places to discover this album, Novi Sad in Serbia is probably the least likely. But then, that’s exactly why I have friends like Jordan. The only girl silly enough to bring her primary laptop to a music festival (granted, she was moving over to the UK), Jordan was a godsend to me because I’d been having a hard time filling up my iPhone with decent music after my iPod was stolen on the plane. And yes, I ended up losing that too when I got mugged in London. So that’s two from two, after hours of painstaking playlist making. Anyway, hopefully she won’t mind me talking about her from the other side of the world, but Jordan’s a perennial beam of sunshine. We spent our long walks over the bridge to the EXIT Festival fortress harmonising to ’90s pop hits like this like there wasn’t nobody around for miles. That’s the kind of person she is; appreciator of fine music and always with a song in her heart. So it should really come as no surprise that inamongst all the bass and hi-hats on her beleaguered computer that I should find this classic 1956 album done exclusively for Verve.
Until I heard this, I really thought that in terms of duets, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack had it nailed. But there’s something unmistakably beautiful about hearing these two jazz titans sharing the microphone and working brilliantly to each others’ strengths that is just worlds beyond anything else. The classic opening line, made famous by Fred Astaire is just gorgeous, especially when it’s filtered through Armstrong’s watery gravel pipes:
“Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…”
The arrangement is absolutely tasteful and immaculately recorded. A dream team combination of Oscar Peterson on the ivories and the legendary Buddy Rich on the skins is aided by the fact that everything Armstrong does, including the first repeat of the head (he’s got the whole song until the 2 and a half minute mark) is dripping with expression. It also sets up Ella’s entry to be a burst of lighter colour, as she directly counteracts Louis’ warble with the purest of pure tones and the kind of vocal control that even the newly-pregnant Beyonce Knowles wishes she had. When I listen to her voice, I kind of wonder why we even bother getting excited about things like the VMAs. It’s just that nothing produced in stereo sound is anywhere near as ethereal as Fitzgerald, which may explain why we have whole ceremonies devoted to music videos as opposed to the music itself. There’s so much to love here, particularly when Louis comes back from the sidelines to play countermelodies on his horn in a way that piques your interest but in no way detracts from the First Lady’s lead. That’s real skill. That’s why they’re credited equally on all the songs, rather than having one featuring the other.
After days of contemporary rock and far too much dubstep, hearing this was the best thing I could have hoped for. Thus I can credit my newly British friend with having simultaneously exposed me to a swing classic and a new-ish techno phenomenon in the shape of Paul Kalkbrenner within the same weekend. As we lay in our beds contemplating another sweat-filled night of debauchery, this record came on through the tinny speakers and suddenly we were somewhere else. “This is amazing,” I said to Jordan, swinging over the railing. “I know,” she replied, “There’s nobody like Ella, she’s untouchable.” I can’t pick a favourite from these two, but then I guess that’s part of the beauty of it. Reward yourself by listening through to the last turnaround, where they sing together for the first time. It’s magical. It’s unique. And though it probably made my grandparents misty-eyed, I’m a sucker for it, too.
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – ‘Cheek To Cheek’