Ella Fitzgerald: Ella At Zardi’s (Verve Records)

Ella Fitzgerald—who would have turned 100 years old this year—was one of the true titans of Jazz vocalists. Her long and storied career is rightly venerated, as she possessed one of the sweetest, softest voices of the genre. Thus, it’s a call for celebration whenever new recordings are discovered, especially if those recordings hail from her peak decade, the 1950s. Ella At Zardi’s, recorded in 1956, presents a recently discovered and heretofore unknown live performance in an intimate club setting.

Zardi’s Jazzland, a brief-lived jazz club located on Hollywood Boulevard, was noted for its small, warm performance space. It was the sort of hip club one went to appreciate the greats of jazz in an up close and personal setting. Thus, it’s not surprising that Fitzgerald—who by that time was a household name who could sell out large theaters—sounds absolutely fantastic in such a small venue. Ella At Zardi’s contains the two sets she performed on February 2, 1956, and while she’s chosen a handful of songs from her Songbook series, while taking advantage of the intimate setting by performing audience requests. The audience calls for her to sing a Blues song, and she complies with a rousing take of “Joe Williams’s Blues.” “Oh, you wanted a slow blues song,” she coyly says to her hungry audience, before launching into a fine (though not slow) version of “A Fine Romance.”

Fitzgerald is in a playful mood, and it’s that looseness that makes Ella At Zardi’s such a delight. She cracks jokes with the audience, her band members, and is generally having a good time on stage as she runs through the audience requests, including a jaunty version of her first hit, “A Tisket, A Tasket,” and hearing a receptive audience convince her to sing “Gone With The Wind” after she tells them she doesn’t remember all the words just shows how willing she was to give the audience what they wanted. Thus, these two performances are loose and carefree, and while they would not necessarily rank as one of her best performances, the intimacy and spirit certainly makes Ella At Zardi’s one of her most enjoyable.

It’s not hard to imagine her audience sitting there, eyes wide in excitement, enjoying every minute of this up-close appearance, for such was this writer’s reaction upon hearing this delightful live album sixty-one years after it was recorded.  Ella At Zardi’s offers a glimpse of a legendary musician with their guard down, and in a way that humanizes them and makes them more endearing.

Ella At Zardi’s is available now from Verve Records.

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