The Great American Songbook is so flexible, and this material can be played in so many different ways, that it seems foolish to identify any single singer's interpretation of any given song as "definitive." Yet Ella Fitzgerald's eight songbook albums of 1956-1964 (along with
Frank Sinatra's "concept albums" of the same period) are so commanding in their treatment of this material that it's hard not to declare them as the definitive treatments of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Jerome Kern. Apart from defining the Songbook concept itself, the Fitzgerald and Sinatra albums also set the bar for standards of excellence that all singers performing this music have since aspired to. The orchestrations by 25-year-old Buddy Bregman aren't as well conceived as later Songbooks handled by Nelson Riddle -- in fact, Fitzgerald (1917-1996) sounds best when backed only by the rhythm section on "I Get a Kick out of You." But the point here isn't the charts but Fitzgerald herself. Whether she's being romantic on "So in Love" or coyly teasing on "Always True to You Darling in My Fashion," these are the most mellifluously musical pipes ever to go to work on Cole Porter.