Ella Fitzgerald: Mack the Knife

“Mack the Knife” is from Ella in Berlin, one of her finest live albums. It became one of her biggest sellers and won two Grammy Awards – one for “Best Album by a Female Singer” and the other for “Best Song by a Female Singer” for “Mack the Knife.” There is an exuberance and joy in this performance that is infectious and compelling, a side of Ella seldom displayed in the recording studio. Towards the end of the 1950s and in the early '60s, Ella was at the peak of her abilities, and the warm response of the 2,000-person crowd audibly lifts her into the zone. There is a powerful sense of swing in her vocal line, almost overwhelming in its power, yet part of the charm of the piece is when she forgets the lyrics and, completely unfazed, improvises new ones on the spot – a superb example of her thinking on her feet. Incidentally, she does not miss the opportunity of doing her impression of Louis Armstrong, for years a proven crowd pleaser. It gave audiences an indefinable feel-good factor that added significantly to her in-person charm, and it can still be felt, decades later, on compact disc.

February 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Louis Armstrong: Mack the Knife

"Mack the Knife" is dramatist Bertolt Brecht's grisly answer to Jack the Ripper, a nasty narrative of murderously mutilated bodies oozing scarlet billows before being dumped in the river. Enter Louis Armstrong, genially growling about a shark's pearly whites. Only when the blood spreads is it obvious that the shark is metaphor for Brecht's knife-wielding villain, Macheath. Yet with Satchmo's trumpet leading the Dixieland merriment and his single atop the pop charts, laughing Louie has clearly neutralized Brecht's pathology. Our greatest jazzman dunks us into a voyeuristic cesspool, and we cheer as though watching Jaws and rooting for the great white. Sick stuff.

November 20, 2007 · 0 comments


Sonny Rollins: Moritat

Rollins's dedication to the Great American Songbook is extended to this German chestnut, by Weill-Brecht, which most of us know as "Mack the Knife." The great Jazz Ambassador, Louis Armstrong, had recorded the tune shortly before Rollins, in September 1955. This is worth noting as context for Rollins’s playing here. To my ears it sounds like he was very familiar with Pops’s vocal. As usual he uses the tune as a starting point and takes his time extending beyond the core material. He’s supported beautifully throughout but the track is a little long for my taste.

October 31, 2007 · 0 comments


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