Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great American Songbook

I'm at home listening to an LP (vinyl) of Ella Fitzgerald's Duke Ellington Songbook. Ella did a whole series of songbooks recording music and lyrics by Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, and Duke. This music is important to listen to for a few reasons.

The quality of the original music and lyrics, the excellent arrangements, and Ella's near flawless singing. Many of the arrangements are by Nelson Riddle, who had some classic albums with Sinatra. The arrangements on the Duke songbook album are by Duke himself with the great Billy Strayhorn. (Strayhorn wrote many classics identified with Ellington's band, such as "Take the A-Train." )

Listening to Ella's songbooks is a good way to learn a lot of standard tunes, with both words and music. If we take all the Ella's songbooks together, we have most of the best songs by eight or nine of the great composers and songwriting teams of twentieth-century American popular music. There are some songs missing: she never did a Hoagy Carmichael songbook, for example. But it will give you a good head start. Not all the songs she sang became classic jazz instrumental standards, but quite of few of them are.

Knowing the lyric of a song is a good idea. In the first place, it helps you to remember what the song is called, if you hear it played and not sung. Secondly, some of these lyrics are extremely well-written pieces of "written jazz." Thirdly, knowing the words gives you an emotional connection to the song, even if you are hearing a purely instrumental version.


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  2. Online free, many of these, on Lala. (Hope I got the link right this time.)

    "Near flawless", I think, expresses why I find these somewhat boring. Good and all, blessedly copious, and instructive as you say, but lacking (for me) in surprise.

  3. I don't find them dull, but that's because I remember my surprise at hearing them as teenager, especially the Rogers and Hart, and my later surprise at how good the Ellington was.