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Jazz Reviews : Fitzgerald in Top Form, Unfazed by a Fall at Bowl

“People can really say Ella fell for them,” said the first lady of jazz Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

She wasn’t kidding. An hour into her show, blinded by the lights, Ella Fitzgerald misstepped and fell onto the apron. Her remark was made from a prone position as she was being helped back up, and she sang the rest of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business” as if nothing had happened. Later, during a duo set with Joe Pass, she ad-libbed a few bars of “Since I Fell for You.”

Two years after a series of health problems and open heart surgery, Fitzgerald retains the characteristics that established her supremacy exactly 50 years ago this month, when her first hit record, “A Tisket, a Tasket” with the Chick Webb Band, reached the record stores.

Rather than compare her to the Fitzgerald of earlier years, it would seem fitting to speculate who could have offered a program richer in spirit, musicianship, imagination and diversity. The answer is simple: not a living soul.

Sure, there’s a quaver rather than a vibrato that surfaces during some of the ballads, yet her range, intonation and ability to hit sudden, unexpected high notes are unimpaired.

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Ready to weave her magic on 16,121 fans, Fitzgerald hit an instant groove with “Sweet Georgia Brown,” written in 1925 when she was 7 years old. By the time she was through, we had heard a Ray Charles style blues, a Gershwin medley with time out for a piano solo by Paul Smith, a scat routine on “Night in Tunisia” trading riffs with bassist Keter Betts, the Portuguese and English lyrics to “Agua de Beber,” and finally the inevitable crowd-pleasers from “How High the Moon” (now equipped with a mock-operatic interlude) to “Mack the Knife” and, when a third encore seemed mandated, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”

By this time she had Pass, Smith, Betts and drummer Frank Capp for company, and if her doctors had not warned her to take it easy she might have stayed on another hour. (After dedicating a number to the doctors, she described herself as “The Bionic Woman.”)

The Joe Pass solo set was so alive, so brilliant both in sound and invention, that guitarists in the audience may well have wanted to go home and trash their instruments. Playing almost exclusively finger style (he only used the plectrum on the final tune), Pass got to the core of every song, whether by Jerome Kern or Ivan Lins, miraculously adding rhythmic and melodic nuances without ever losing the original essence. During his set with Fitzgerald they played musical Ping-Pong with “One Note Samba” in what sounded like a loving exchange of embraces.

One of the tunes during this unforgettable evening was “Teach Me Tonight.” The title sounded as though every other singer might well address it to this indestructible lady.


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