This CD is surprising for two reasons. It is probably the only Ella Fitzgerald album ever that does not have a single vocal by Ella, being comprised entirely of instrumentals by her orchestra of 1939-1940, taken from radio broadcasts. The fact that Ella is absent (other than yelling out encouragement to her sidemen) should have been mentioned on the outside of the CD; she does not even sing her hit "Undecided." The other surprise is how good her orchestra sounds. The Chick Webb Orchestra, once Ella had proven to be a commercial success, recorded few exciting instrumentals during 1938-1939 and were obviously searching for a hit. After Webb's death in mid-1939, Ella was named the leader of the big band (though she did little other than sing), and the band lasted till 1942 without any further hits or making much of an impression. But these 24 selections show that, when allowed to cut loose, it was an excellent and potentially great swing orchestra. Surprisingly, Bobby Stark, a great player with Fletcher Henderson but one who rarely was given solos during his years with Webb, takes all of the trumpet solos heard on the first 20 selections; Taft Jordan gets his usual featured spot back during the final broadcast. Stark, though a bit streaky, is exciting throughout, and this is his best showcase since he left Henderson in 1934. Also distinguishing themselves are trombonist Sandy Williams (heard at his very best), clarinetist Eddie Barefield, Teddy McRae on tenor, and pianist Tommy Fulford. Wayman Carver has a rare flute solo on "I've Found a New Baby," drummer Bill Beason really drives the band throughout, and the completely unknown Lonnie Simmons is exciting while dominating the final two selections. There are many heated killer-dillers to be heard throughout this surprising program, which is mostly comprised of previously unreleased performances, making one reassess the largely forgotten Ella Fitzgerald Orchestra. But just don't expect Ella to sing this time around.
AllMusic Review by Scott Yanow