Elvis started it. Back in 2015, Elvis Presley Enterprises teamed with producers Nick Patrick and Don Reedma and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for If I Can Dream. The 14-song album featured Elvis’s original vocal tracks with the instrumentals dropped out and replaced by new arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic.
I suspect the concept was conceived following an unusual concert at Radio City Music Hall in February 2011. The event featured a collection of Elvis’s filmed Las Vegas concert performances projected onto a large screen while a 16-piece orchestra and Presley’s TCB band played on stage behind a sheer screen. In other words, the color visuals from Vegas combined with live studio-quality music on stage. Your brain was tricked into thinking you were actually seeing Elvis live, and it worked. I was there.
The first Elvis album with the Royal Philharmonic was so successful that a second one—The Wonder of You—was released in 2016, featuring another 15 original Presley vocals. It, too, climbed the charts, leading to a surge in similar plush treatments. In November, we’ll see the release of Elvis Christmas: With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and A Love So Beautiful: Roy Orbison With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Sony Legacy). I’m sure more are in the pipeline.
Now the concept is being extended to the American Songbook. This past Friday, Someone to Watch Over Me: Ella With the London Symphony Orchestra (Verve) was released and features 12 original vicals with new orchestrations. The purist in me wants to tell you the Ella experiment is all wrong but in truth, it’s highly appealing and addictive. Produced by James Morgan and Juliette Pochin (above), the album doesn’t encroach on Ella’s original vocals or diminish them. Instead, they enrich her original vocal and focus your ear on the majestic quality of her delivery. I must confess, enjoying this album feels like getting caught at the fridge late at night eating a slice of strawberry shortcake. You can’t stop listening. [Photo above courtesy of James Morgan]
For the Ella album, the London Symphony Orchestra was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London. Most of the arrangements were by Jorge Calandrelli (above), with Morgan and Pochin handling Makin’ Whoopee! and These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You). Arrangements were written with enormous sensitivity to play off Ella’s original vocals. Once the orchestra tracks were completed, Ella’s vocal tracks were skillfully added and seamlessly synced. There are two duets—one with Gregory Porter on People Will Say We’re in Love and another with Louis Armstrong on They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
Most of the arrangements are terrific, especially on I Get a Kick Out of You, Misty, These Foolish Things, What Is There to Say and With a Song in My Heart. Some are slightly less successful, largely due to a few sluggish song choices. The good news is that the team will likely get a another shot, since this collection will surely do well.
As impossible as this may seem, Ella’s voice sounds even better on this recording than on the originals. Thanks to the new supersized strings, horns and reeds arrangements, you hear clarity and tone that wasn’t apparent on the albums from which they were taken. You also come to realize her vocal instrument wasn’t fully framed a half-decade ago and that she could have used orchestration a few sizes larger. At least now, Ella has what she should have had all along.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Someone to Watch Over Me: Ella With the London Symphony Orchestra (Verve) here.
The album also is available at Spotify.
JazzWax clip: Here’s I Get a Kick Out of You…