Various Artists: Ella 100 Live at the Apollo

Jim Worsley BY

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Various Artists: Ella 100 Live at the Apollo
To be taken back in time within the scope of a period piece movie has long been a staple. Some journeys feel much more real than others, but the concept is commonplace. Venturing into the past with only the audio of a CD or record is, as they might have said back in 1934, "a whole different kettle of fish." A live audience first laid eyes and ears on this 100th birthday celebration honoring the sensational Ella Fitzgerald (born on April 25th, 1917), live at the Apollo in 2017.

It took a host of talent to do justice to one seventeen-year old singer in this project recreating the night of November 21, 1934, when the teenage Fitzgerald made her debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. With only voice and musical instruments to channel us back to 1934, emcee David Alan Grier accurately took us there. The feel of an old-time radio show was present. Fittingly, seventeen-year old Ayodele Owalabe started the show with "Judy," the same tune another seventeen-year old had sung performing on that same stage in 1934, launching her prolific career.

It just wouldn't have been right to not have The Count Basie Orchestra perform with the many singers who proceeded to hit the stage one after another. The orchestra was in full swing and later tore the house down with an all instrumental take on "Back to the Apollo." Prior to that, Patti Austin stole the show early, finding her inner child Ella and playfully scatting through the classic "A Tisket-A Tasket." Impressively changing gears on a dime, Austin then took "When I Get Low I Get High" on a sultry road which had the crowd buzzing.

Keeping your mind in 1934 may be a challenge sometimes due to some rough editing which keeps pulling you back to reality. However, the show itself didn't skip a beat with Andra Day's feisty take on "Ain't Misbehavin.'" David Alan Grier proved to be well more than an emcee with a riveting version of "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me." Moving right along, the incomparable Lizz Wright took her "wrightful" place center stage, along with the Ella 100 All Star Quartet featuring guitarist Brian Nova, bassist Nathan East, pianist Shelly Berg and, far from last and least, drummer Gregg Field. The quartet leader, Field, most notably played with Fitzgerald "back in the day." While the quartet changed the mood from the big sound of the orchestra and played superbly, it was Wright who smoldered into "Love You Madly" and, like butter, slid into a heartfelt "The Nearness of You." Wright seemed to take the audience's breath away.

A fun spin on "Oh, Lady Be Good" by Afro Blue had elements of The The Modernaires. The Count Basie Orchestra and Austin returned to the stage to join Afro Blue in a kicked-up look at "How High is the Moon." After a brief repartee which clarified that Grier was as unfunny in 1934 as he is in the present, he again stunned in a magnificent duet with Austin of "I Loves You Porgy." Cassandra Wilson's delightful bend on "Cry Me A River" followed. Next up, Ledisi took a run on "Honeysuckle Rose." With due respect, the show lost a little steam at this point. Neither Ledisi's voice nor scatting sensibilities were on a par with her predecessors. Not that she isn't a fine singer, perhaps just not the best choice to be singing Ella Fitzgerald tunes.

Monica Mancini—yes Henry Mancini's daughter—then sang "Once in A While" joined by Brian Nova's fine Joe Pass interpretation on guitar. Grier and Austin returned for a finale that was Broadwayesque, as opposed to the big band power push one might expect in honoring a jazz singer. Not to mention the fact that The Count Basie Orchestra was in the house.

There are certainly way more hits than misses and a couple of the hits were home runs or triples. An enjoyable listening experience was enhanced when the record closed with a live recording of "People" sung in all its glory by the legend herself. With just one song you clearly hear and understand why Ella Fitzgerald is heralded as the "The First Lady of Song."

Track Listing

Judy; Opening Remarks; A Ticket-A Basket; When I Get Low I Get High; Ain't Misbehavin'; Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me; Love You Madly; The Nearness of You; Oh, Lady Be Good; How High is the Moon; Back to the Apollo; I Loves You Porgy/There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For NY; Cry Me A River; Honeysuckle Rose; Once In A While; You'll Have To Swing It Mr. Paganini)/Paganini Bows Reprise; People


The Count Basie Orchestra: band/orchestra; David Alan Grier: voice / vocals; Patti Austin: voice / vocals; Monica Mancini: voice / vocals; Cassandra Wilson: voice / vocals; Ledisi: voice / vocals; Ella Fitzgerald: voice / vocals; Afro Blue : voice / vocals; Lizz Wright: voice / vocals; Andra Day: voice / vocals; Brian Nova: guitar; Gregg Field: drums; Nathan East: bass; Shelly Berg: piano.

Album information

Title: Ella 100 Live at the Apollo | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Concord Jazz

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