December 7, 2020. Some performers are so far from anonymous, they become mononymous—instantly recognizable by just a one-word name. In jazz: Duke, Satch, Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Monk...and Ella. First Lady of Song and all the other honorifics are nice but superfluous; "Ella" tells the entire story.
But, as is the case with all the immortals, it’s a story that’s complete but never quite finished; just when you think you can’t learn or discover anything more, there’s something new. And so, like Brubeck’s Time OutTakes and Coltrane’s Blue World, and now here, with Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes, we have manna for those who worship at the altar of Ella. Thank a higher power, if you’re so inclined; then thank Norman Granz.
Ella’s manager and Verve Records founder, Granz made a habit of recording Ella whenever and wherever. Sometimes for marketing or radio, sometimes for later release, sometimes if this one’s an indication he acted not with intent but just out of compulsion—memorialize this now; figure it out later. That’s why Granz, too, is, like Ella, immortal; even so long after he’s gone and after all the great recordings he’s already brought us, he still, somehow, keeps on giving.
By 1962, Europe knew Ella well and loved her. London, Paris, but especially Berlin, where in 1960 she’d recorded the iconic Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin. It was then and there that was the setting for one of the iconic moments in Ella lore, when she forgot the words to “Mack the Knife,” and without a moment’s visible panic launched into one of jazz history’s most memorable, genius and endearing vocal improvisations.
In June 1963, JFK told a Berlin crowd, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” but by March of ’62, a month shy of her 45th birthday, Ella was the American who had their hearts. Everyday Germans, while fond of JFK, razzed him for arguably declaring himself a jelly donut, but they adored Ella even more when she forgot the words and gave her a pass when she forgot the name of the German capital.
On this tour, Ella was more than “ein Berliner”; she was the main course and the dessert, too. Her band, of Paul Smith on piano, Wilfred Middlebrooks on bass, and Stan Levey on drums would follow an appetizer that ate like a meal—a band led by Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. So, the crowd at Berlin’s Sportspalast was primed by the time Ella and Co. came on, and they did not disappoint.
Ella: The Lost Berlin Tapes is seventeen tunes over the course of a nearly perfect hour filled with Songbook hits like “Cheek to Cheek” and “I Won’t Dance” and, of course, “Mack the Knife,” paired with more obscure tunes like “My Kind of Boy,” “C’est Magnifique,” and “Mr. Paganini,” lesser known material that, said Ella’s pianist Paul Smith, “The average singer would have [had] a helluva time making…sound good.”
The ovation Ella receives when she comes out is goosebump inducing, and she comes out hot with “Cheek to Cheek.” There’s such a remarkable flow of energy from Ella to the band, from the band back to Ella, and between Ella and the crowd in both directions. Everyone in that room is elevated; nearly 60 years later, it comes through clear as ever. “My Kind of Boy,” is next and cool as can be, a tune that showcases Ella’s absolute love of not just singing but performing. Her talent is so comprehensive and so easily expressed; it’s vital and restorative and humbling in the most gratifying way as a listener.
And her personality shines through just as powerfully on the ballads. “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Angel Eyes” serve as bookend ballads to a three-song sequence with the scat-heavy, pre-war-style salute “Jersey Bounce” sandwiched between. She takes you up and down and back up again, always supremely convincing that, emotionally, she’s 100% invested, present and totally consumed with each individual tune.
Like the best quarterbacks, her emotional memory is short. The transition from “Jersey Bounce” into “Angel Eyes” is the best example of this; she takes you from the carefree feel of a USO dance hall on V-E Day to the seductive, bitter lament of “Angel Eyes.” And she does this with no musical buffer, no middle ground; she’s got her finger directly on the emotional thermostat of the room, and she can go hot or cool at a moment’s notice and have everyone forget that which had totally consumed them just minutes before. It’s like a superpower.
“Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” a full-throttled intoxicant associated with one of her early bosses, the Swing-era drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, takes the audience right back up and showcases the rhythmic virtuosity that really set Ella apart. It’s a delightfully garish Broadway-style performance that leaves you shaking your head in amazement and maybe somewhat disillusioned over the fact that music like this will never again be “popular” music.
“Taking a Chance on Love” follows; if I’d written her set-list, this is my closer. It’s a curtain closer. Take a bow, good night.
Ella’s more generous; she gives you another half-hour, taking pages out of the Billie Holiday and Ray Charles songbooks—with “Good Morning, Heartache” and “Hallelujah, I Love Him So,” respectively. See the reprise of the latter for a masterclass on improvisation and pitch control.
This, too, would’ve been a perfectly reasonable point on which to say goodnight. But this was Berlin, and even though Ella humorously forgets the name of the city she’s in momentarily, she knows she’s in the place where she flubbed the lyrics to “Mack the Knife” just two years prior. Then, it was perfect imperfection; this time, it’s simply perfection, Satch impression and all.
Ella starts singing about that shark’s pearly whites, and on a night where they’ve consistently showered her with applause, we hear the loudest eruption yet from the Berlin crowd.