Renowned Vocalists Pay Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald for Her 100th Birthday on ‘Ella 100: Live at the Apollo’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Hailed as the greatest jazz singer of all time, any tribute to Ella Fitzgerald demands a pull-out-all-the-stops production which is precisely what we get with this live show from Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, the very venue where Ella got her start at age 17 in 1934. This spectacular almost 80-minute long recording, Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! is being released the day before Ella’s birthday, April 25, 2020, marking 103 years. The live show and recording were produced by the eight-time GRAMMY and Emmy Award recipient and former Fitzgerald musician Gregg Field, and co-hosted by GRAMMY award-winner Patti Austin and the multi-TONY award-nominated actor/singer David Alan Grier

In addition to Austin and Grier, the concert features performances by Andra Day, Ledisi, Lizz Wright, Cassandra Wilson, Monica Mancini and the award-winning a cappella vocal group from Howard University, Afro Blue. Accompanying these world-class vocalists is the Count Basie Orchestra and strings, presenting the music of Ella and the renowned orchestra with whom Ella so often collaborated. Also featured, and to celebrate Ella’s famous quartet, is the deeply swinging Ella 100 All-Star Quartet with Shelly Berg, Nathan East, Brian Nova and Field, who channel the spontaneous spirit direct from Ella.  

There is also a film documentary that was about to be released, delayed now due to COVID-19, called Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things that fans should see when it releases later this year. The film is not related to this production but adds additional perspective to the narrated portions of what we hear on this disc. Ella’s beginning is now legendary. At just 17, she entered the famous Apollo Amateur Contest to dance but made at the last instant and fateful decision to sing for the difficult-to-please Apollo Amateur Night crowd. Her shockingly original and vibrant delivery of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” with a range and depth simply unheard-of—especially from one so young—brought the house down, thus launching a remarkable career that changed 20th Century music and has not been equaled to this day.  

The show opens with a vintage radio broadcast of that fateful evening and features Grier with a faithful recreation of original Apollo Amateur Contest host Ralph Cooper introducing the young Ella and her unexpected performance of “Judy,” sung here by the fabulous 17-year-old vocalist Ayo (Ayodele Owolabi). Grier then offers his opening remarks and introduces Austin who delivers a fiery take on Ella’s signature hit “A Tisket, A Tasket”, and then authentically brings the vintage “When I Get Low, I Get High” back to the Apollo stage. To the complete surprise of the already highly engaged Apollo audience, Grier returns with a funky, contemporary reading of “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.”  

Most folks, including producer Fields, didn’t even know Grier was a singer, “I didn’t know David could sing until I heard him as Sportin’ Life in the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess,” that he received a Tony nomination for” says producer Field, who played drums with both Fitzgerald and Basie during his own long, distinguished career and assembled the lineup for Ella’s 100th celebration. In some cases, the artists themselves like Austin, Monica Mancini and Field all had a personal relationship with Ella. “The more we could bring artists into the line-up that had a direct association with Ella the more authentic this evening would become.” Field noted.

Andra Day (who appears on CD release only) gives one of the most performances with “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (featuring a later Nelson Riddle arrangement written for Ella and never recorded). Lizz Wright renders “Love You Madly” (with The Ella 100 All-Star Quartet) and the superbly emotive “The Nearness of You,” the better vehicle for her nuanced, sensual style. Another stunner is the duo interpretation of the ballad “Once in a While” featuring Mancini and Joe Pass protégé guitarist Brian Nova—in the spirit of Ella and Joe Pass. Cassandra Wilson turns in a deeply passionate and blue reading of “Cry Me a River,” backed by piano and strings, and 12-time GRAMMY Award-nominated singer Ledisi brings her deep New Orleans jazz roots to Ella’s “Honeysuckle Rose” with full orchestra backing. 

Other highlights include the vocal choir Afro Blue, bringing back to the Apollo stage the grand tradition of a’cappella singing on “Lady Be Good.” They then join Austin for a ripping scat-infused romp through Ella’s classic “How High the Moon,” followed by the Count Basie Orchestra, with its explosive instrumental workout of the appropriately named “Back to the Apollo.” To round out the concert and celebrate the great Ella pairings, the concert includes two duets featuring co-hosts Austin and Grier: first a medley of Gershwin standards, “I Loves You Porgy” and “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” celebrating the great Ella and Louis Armstrong album Porgy & Bess, and finally roof-raising closer, “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” bringing us full circle and back to one of Ella’s earliest hits recorded back in 1936 when she was the girl-singer for the great Chick Webb Orchestra. There was room for one more on the disc, so we are treated to Ella herself performing a personal version of “People,” poignantly expressing her love for the fans, the artists and musicians that in turn loved her so dearly.  

That love comes across in this concert for the ages. DownBeat writer Russ Musto hails it as “One of the most spectacular concerts I’ve had the pleasure to attend in my nearly fifty years of listening to jazz.” Field fondly recalls in the minutes just prior to the concert starting, “The curtains were closed and we were just about to let it fly when there was a spirit that hit all of us I don’t believe I’ve experienced on any stage. I turned to the band and choking up a bit said, ‘Hey guys, that’s the spot where Ella sang for the very first time. Let’s play this one for Ella… We all felt the history. It was palpable. Knowing where it all began with this confluence of talent could have only happened that night on the Apollo stage. After we played our last note,” Field adds, “a couple of the hardened NY string players came up to me and said, ‘That was the most amazing night I’ve ever experienced.’ The Ella stars aligned and shined brightly that evening at the Apollo and created an unforgettable and timeless moment for all those lucky enough to be in the house… or on the stage.”

This is, as we said at the outset, is one professional production with remarkable performances from all honoring Ella the way she deserved to be. 

 

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