Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson – Ella and Oscar (1975, reissue)

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by Nick DeRiso

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 label — a 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 arpeggiations — and 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 her — playing 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 bonafide classic, she hurls herself into the darkest elements of the lyric. Meanwhile, Peterson — opening up to the late-night blues of the moment — allows 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 kept 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 rise again to achieve moments of unequivocal skill and boundless improvisational instinct.

And, with both Ella and Oscar now long gone, that’s gift enough.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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