Although his records often feature worthy vocalists, Duke Ellington didn't collaborate with too many singers on full-length albums. An obvious example that comes readily to mind is his landmark meeting with Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, which yielded the excellent Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook for Verve. Yet one year before that, in 1956, the studios of Columbia Records witnessed another magnificent collaboration, this time with the always compelling Rosemary Clooney. The association produced the excellent album Blue Rose, and even though it all might have seemed rather unlikely at first sight, the results certainly proved otherwise, as Clooney showed that she was not only a fine pop singer, but also a jazz vocalist of the first order. This had already been evident on the recordings she'd previously made with Benny Goodman and with Harry James, and it would become particularly obvious in the outstanding series of songbook albums that she cut in the 1970s and '80s in a small-group jazz setting for Concord. And then there's her series of radio shows for CBS backed by Buddy Cole in the 1950s—and recently reissued on a Mosaic Records box set—which are also good proof of how much at ease she felt singing with a small jazz combo. But to my ears, her LP with Ellington by far represents her best work as a jazz singer.
The album is clearly intended to be a sort of Ellington songbook, since all the tunes are written by the maestro, and as always, Duke and Billy Strayhorn provide very appropriate musical settings for Clooney's voice. The arrangements are imaginative and sometimes intricate without ever getting in the way of her lightly swinging, highly attractive voice. Apparently, Clooney and Ellington were unable to work together in the studio, owing to the fact that the singer was undergoing a rather difficult pregnancy at the time the album was recorded. Therefore, the band was forced to lay down the instrumental tracks in New York and Clooney later overdubbed her vocals in Los Angeles. Listening to the finished product, though, there doesn't seem to be any aural evidence of this, as the interaction between vocalist and orchestra sounds perfectly natural and seamless. Rosie tackles Ellington classics such as "Sophisticated Lady," "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Mood Indigo," and "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" with ease and gusto, and all tracks are embellished by first-rate solos from Ellington's sidemen, including legendary names such as trumpeters Ray Nance, Clark Terry, and Cat Anderson, and saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Harry Carney, and Paul Gonsalves, among several others. The indispensable 1999 Columbia-Legacy reissue includes an illuminating essay by Will Friedwald, as well as two bonus tracks from the sessions ("If You Were in My Place" and "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'") that were not included in the original album and is indispensable to understand Clooney's jazzier side. Any serious appreciation of Rosie from the perspective of jazz should start right here.