Various Artists - Ella 100: Live at the Apollo

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Various Artists - Ella 100: Live at the Apollo

I was still listening to vinyl 45s and LPs when I had my first encounter with Ella Fitzgerald, while sitting in front of the television watching football. That’s when one of those ubiquitous commercials came on, where Fitzgerald shattered the crystal wineglass with her voice. Some celebrity sitting in a booth had to figure out if Fitzgerald’s amplified voice or a recording of the legend made on Memorex cassette tape shattered the glass. Of course, the celebrity could not tell, and a baritone voiced announcer would ask, ‘Is it live, or is it Memorex?’

Various Artists - Ella 100: Live at the Apollo

I was still listening to vinyl 45s and LPs when I had my first encounter with Ella Fitzgerald, while sitting in front of the television watching football. That’s when one of those ubiquitous commercials came on, where Fitzgerald shattered the crystal wineglass with her voice. Some celebrity sitting in a booth had to figure out if Fitzgerald’s amplified voice or a recording of the legend made on Memorex cassette tape shattered the glass. Of course, the celebrity could not tell, and a baritone voiced announcer would ask, ‘Is it live, or is it Memorex?’

By 1989, Fitzgerald’s distinctive scat mixed with Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee’s rap, George Benson’s guitar, James Moody’s saxophone, and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis’ trumpet on my Memorex copy of Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block album that I played in my car. By then, Fitzgerald was shattering expectations rather than glass.

The medium was CDs when my ongoing Ella Fitzgerald infatuation started in the 1990s. I exchanged CDs with a friend of mine who sings. She gave me a copy of her Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook album­. I couldn’t tell which CD I gave her if you put a gun to my head. She still has it though because I kept the Ella CD. I fell HARD for Ella. I played that record so much – “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” were my faves. The First Lady of Song has remained a part of my playlist as music platforms switched from Napster to smart phones and streaming services.

Fitzgerald’s impact transcends generations of singers, and that can be heard on Ella 100: Live at the Apollo. The live recording brought an all-star cast of singers and musicians back to the place where it started for Fitzgerald – the legendary Apollo Theater. That is where, on Nov. 21, 1934, Fitzgerald decided to sing rather than follow the dancing Edwards Sister with a dance routine of her own at the venue’s legendary Amateur Night competition.

Performers on the album include artists who knew Fitzgerald personally such as co-host Patti Austin, drummer Gregg Field (who produced the show) and Monica Mancini. Field toured with Fitzgerald and the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1980s. The lineup also featured jazz artists such as Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright and R&B performers like Ledisi and Andra Day. Ayodele Owolabi and the Howard Univerity vocal group Afro Blue also performed.

Owolabi’s presence and performance show how much thought Field put into crafting this show. Owolabi was 17 when Ella 100 was recorded – the same age Fitzgerald was when she sang “Judy” on that fateful night in 1934, and the concert opened with a faithful recreation with co-host David Alan Grier assuming the role of famed amateur night host Ralph Cooper, who introduces Owolabi’s Fitzgerald.

Owolabi assumes the role of the shy Fitzgerald who sings a milquetoast version of the tune and then, sensing she is losing the crowd, leads the band on an improvised swinging version where she introduces the world to her original style of vocalize called scat singing.

Field’s use of the Count Basie Orchestra was also inspired, and not just because Field played with Basie before joining Fitzgerald’s band. Fitzgerald sang with Basie’s band for years.

Ella 100 captures the celebratory and revelatory nature of the night. Austin and Grier keep the festivities moving, capably serving as emcees and performers. Austin captures the youthful joy of budding star Fitzgerald in her performances of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

Those of us who know Grier mostly from his comedic work on “In Living Color” or his recent work as a dramatic actor on “Queen Sugar” might be surprised to hear his baritone in a soulfully swinging rendition of “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me.” Those who saw his Tony Award nominated performance as Sportin’ Life in the revival of “Porgy and Bess,” would not be surprised at all.

Revelatory and stunning might be the best way to describe Lizz Wright’s show stopping rendition of “The Nearness of You.” Singing unaccompanied for much of the performance and then backed lightly by a piano, Wright’s phrasing is simply impeccable on a performance that finds her crossing barrier between stage and audience and delivering a level of intimacy that had the crowd in her hands at song’s end.

That performance was a highlight, but every artist – from Afro Blue’s swinging harmonies on “Lady Be Good” to Wilson’s haunting performance of “Cry Me a River” and Ledisi’s sweetly seductive take on “Honeysuckle Rose” - serve to create a first rate birthday bash for the First Lady of Song, Highly Recommended.

By Howard Dukes

 
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