Title: Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!
Label: Concord Jazz
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: April 24, 2020
Vocalists have played a notable role in the history of jazz, including women such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn, who collectively defined vocal artistry in the ongoing jazz tradition. Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! showcases the continuing role of today’s artists, vibrantly celebrating the 100th birthday of another legendary jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald. This recording of the Ella Fitzgerald tribute concert on October 22, 2016, transports you to the stage of the Apollo Theater in New York City, the site of Ella’s performing debut in an amateur contest when she was only seventeen years old. The selections are drawn from Ella’s recording legacy, which extends from her first recording with Chick Webb’s Orchestra on June 12, 1936 for Decca Records to her final complete album recorded for Pablo Records on March 20 & 22, 1980. This represents a span of 44 years, which is truly remarkable for any artist.
The vocalists featured in this concert have their own individual styles, so very important in jazz. Yet, they manage to incorporate references to Ella’s attack and phrasing that bring reminders of her artistry to the forefront. There are too many performances to attempt to describe each one, but I will briefly highlight a few based on my appreciation of Ella’s artistry. I only saw Ella perform once. It was a live concert with Dizzy Gillespie held on a tennis court in Indianapolis, on the IUPUI campus. Ella, accompanied by her trio, stood almost at the edge of the stage to get close to her audience. Recovering from recent eye surgery, she paused once between songs to softly ask people to stop using flash when they approached the stage to take photos, saying “You don’t know how much your flashes hurt my eyes.” At the end of her set, Dizzy walked on stage to offer his arm to escort her safely away from edge as she received a standing ovation. I must not be the only one with a memory of this remarkable evening with Ella. The performances on Ella 100 remind me of the passion the audience felt that evening.
A seventeen-year-old singer, Ayodele Owolabi, opens the concert and recreates Ella’s debut for Apollo’s amateur night in 1934, singing “Judy” (composed by IU’s famous alum, Hoagy Carmichael). Her performance opens with conventional rhythm and lyrics and then suddenly shifts to Ella’s innovative up-tempo scatting approach to vocal improvisation. This performance effectively captures much of Ella’s original phrasing and attack that define her artistry.
Patti Austin follows, performing Ella’s early hit, “A Tisket-A Tasket,” in a wonderfully swinging performance warmly received by the audience (Ella originally recorded the song with Chick Webb’s Orchestra on May 2, 1938). This performance sets the energy that defines the entire concert. Austin then continues with “When I Get Low, I Get High,” a tune Ella first recorded with Webb on April 7, 1936. Lizz Wright offers a very expressive performance of “The Nearness of You,” further elevated by a touching piano solo by Shelley Berg. Patti Austin returns, supported by the vocal chorus Afro Blue and the Count Basie Orchestra, to perform “How High the Moon” (Ella’s first recording of this tune was captured live at a concert with Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on September 29, 1947). Austin’s opening phrasing recalls Ella’s approach, while clearly preserving her own unique style throughout this performance. The Basie Orchestra’s arrangement, while new, also reflects Basie’s original live recordings preserved from those years. Other enjoyable performances include Ledisi’s rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” and Monica Mancini’s interpretation of “Once in a While.” On the latter song, Brian Nova accompanies Mancini on guitar, providing a tribute to Ella’s classic recordings made in partnership with Joe Pass.
Throughout the concert, many of the performers are accompanied by the current version of The Count Basie Orchestra, which gives a spirited performance of the instrumental, “Back to the Apollo.” Every performance on the disc is delightful, including those not mentioned above by Andra Day, David Grier, and Casandra Wilson.
The concert closes with a memorable performance of “People” by Ella with pianist Tommy Flannigan, recorded live in Budapest on May 20, 1970 (Ella first recorded the song with Flannigan for Verve Records in 1964). This historic performance by the “First Lady of Song” herself provides a fitting close to the concert and album.
If you enjoy listening to a combination of emotion, artistry, and celebration of great jazz musical history, you will certainly enjoy Ella 100. The power of these performances is a fitting tribute to Ella’s artistry, and this recording captures the collective passion of these contemporary artists. For those of you familiar with Ella’s recordings, this album may even bring a brief tear to your eyes as you revisit some personal memories of Ella’s illustrious career and her marvelous contributions to building a foundation for vocal performances in jazz music.
Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad
Professor Emeritus of Marketing, Kelley School of Business
Author: Born to Play: Ruby Braff’s Discography and Directory of Performances