Sunday 25 November 2007

Two excellent music documentaries from BBC4

BBC4 has screened two excellent music documentaries in the past week or so. First we were treated to a retrospective exploration of the life and work of Ella Fitzgerald, to mark the 9oth anniversary of her birth. The programme was illuminating about Ella's early life - including new information about her early experiences as a street child and reform school inmate, before success in a singing competition dramatically changed her fortunes. There was some fascinating archive footage of Harlem in the 20s and 30s. As someone who came to jazz fairly late in life (brought up on a diet of rock and pop in the 60s and 70s), I've been slow to appreciate Fitzgerald's genius, initially preferring Billie Holliday's languid and tortured voice to Ella's more mellifluous sound, which can easily be mistaken for superficial smoothness. One of the contributors to the documentary claimed Ella had the best jazz voice ever, and on the evidence of the clips shown here, he may well be right. The programme sent me back to the recordings, and especially the great 'songbook' albums recorded with Norman Granz, with renewed enthusiasm.

Last Friday saw the first in a three-part series, Brasil, Brasil, tracing the history of the country's musical culture. The first instalment was good at demonstrating the mixed African and European roots of samba, and again there was some excellent archive material - this time of Rio and Sao Paulo in the early years of the last century. The programme took us up to the arrival of bossa nova in the early 1960s and included great clips of Jobim, Gilberto, Stan Getz et al. The series is shaping up to be as good as last year's South Bank documentary about current Brazilian star Seu Jorge. Can't wait for next week's instalment.

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