Album Reviews: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Oscar Peterson

New box sets of three jazz icons
May 19, 2018 Updated: May 19, 2018    

During the 1950s, jazz impresario Norman Granz had three of the greatest jazz figures on his Verve Label: Oscar Peterson (1925–2007), Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) and Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996), and he recorded them separately and, on occasion, together. Now, Verve/Ume has released on CD three invaluable box sets.

‘Pops Is Tops’

“Pops Is Tops: The Verve Studio Albums” is a four-CD compilation of Louis Armstrong’s 1957 studio recordings for Verve. While there are some golden trumpet solos (for example, “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Sweet Lorraine”), Satchmo concentrated mostly on his distinctive singing. Despite his gravelly voice, he had an ability to plumb the depths of a lyric. Of course, he could swing and scat.

The CDs “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Louis Under the Stars” were both recorded with the Russ Garcia Orchestra, providing a lusher background than Armstrong usually had.

“Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson” presents the singer-trumpeter with the pianist and his trio. Clearly, Peterson defers to Satchmo and doesn’t try to outplay him (as the pianist occasionally did with others).

In addition to the original records, the sets include alternate takes and some starts and stops with repartee by the participants and occasionally some remarkable solos. The fourth album is completely comprised of this material.

‘Cheek to Cheek: The Complete Duet Recordings’

“Cheek to Cheek: The Complete Duet Recordings” is a new four-CD set in which Fitzgerald and Armstrong go together like sweet and sour in Chinese cooking. The first eight numbers are Decca Singles, with novelty songs (“The Frim Fram Sauce” and “Oops!”) and the lulling “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Though pleasant listening, the material is second-rate.

The CD shifts into high gear with the pair’s first album, “Louis and Ella,” comprised of 11 tracks from the Great American Songbook (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, and Vernon Duke, among others), all with the Oscar Peterson trio. Incidentally, the bass player on all the Peterson numbers is Ray Brown, who had been married to Ella from 1947–1953.

Disc 2 and the beginning of Disc 3 (“Ella and Louis Again”) brings the two back together with the Peterson trio. Again, the material is choice (including classics by Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Harold Arlen). There are all kinds of subtle touches, such as Armstrong playing trumpet behind Fitzgerald or her humming in the background during his solos.

The bulk of Disc 3 is their album of songs from Gershwin’s folk opera, “Porgy and Bess.” While neither had an operatic voice, as with a number of jazz artists, they made this material their own.

Disc 4 contains live recordings and outtakes.

‘Oscar Peterson Plays’

Canadian-born Oscar Peterson was discovered by Norman Granz, who first presented him at his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. Granz then recorded him between 1951 and 1954 on an ambitious project of ten LPs, each dedicated to a different songwriter. They all appear on this five CD set, and they demonstrate the pianist’s virtuosity. Satchmo called him “the man with four hands.”

The sets contain the heart of the Great American Songbook:  (1) Cole Porter and Irving Berlin; (2) George Gershwin and Duke Ellington; (3) Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers; (4) Vincent Youmans and Harry Warren and (5) Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh. Only the Porter session has a drummer. The others are trios with Peterson, Brown and either Herb Ellis or Barney Kessel on guitar.

These recordings are like a novel that you can’t put down.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.