As the program notes for this extraordinarily ambitious all-star dual tribute presentation state, 1917 was among the most injurious in modern history, with the U.S entering World War I and The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Yet it was also the birth year of a beloved future President (JFK) and two of the most influential artists in American jazz history, trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie and “The First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald.
It seems almost limiting to only offer two odd hours of unique, powerhouse performances to honor the centennial of two figures of such influence and stature. The show made the most of its time, running briskly through a spirited batch of “greatest hits,” performed in the unique style of each participating artist. Considering that a trumpeter of the stature of Jon Faddis was the centerpiece (not to mention humorous emcee) of the Dizzy portion, it was perhaps shortsighted of the event’s organizers to feature only one song from the classic Ella and Louis album (“Cheek To Cheek,” performed by Jane Monheit with her trademark dramatic flair) and not include a trumpet solo feature on it. “April in Paris,” anyone?
The five song Dizzy set featured a booming, brassy big band in which each trumpeter was allowed a few seconds of soloing. Percussive classics like “Things To Come” and the feisty Latin romance “Manteca” were anchored and propelled by the dynamic rhythm section of pianist Billy Childs, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash, who got “Manteca” off to an organically exotic start using his hands to pat the skins and launch the groove. Faddis and guest saxophonist Charles McPherson each enjoyed a few dynamic solo spotlights.
Anticipation was high for the Ella portion, which was a sequel of sorts to the Bowl’s 2014 “To Ella with Love” tribute concert with different performers. It was exciting to see popular younger jazz and soul vocal performers like Monheit, Lizz Wright, Andra Day and Tony Award winner Leslie Odom, Jr. performing the Great American Songbook standards Ella helped make famous. It was as if, to quote Ella’s 1917 birth year mate JFK, the torch has been passed to a new generation. The appeal of the individual performances were truly a matter of taste, with Monheit’s bouncy mix of quirk and theatricality on “Love For Sale” balanced by Wright’s dusky romantic intimacy on “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Embraceable You.”
Of the singers, Odom and Day shone the brightest. Odom perfectly captured the deep longing of “Someone to Watch over Me” and the sultry dreaminess of “Night and Day.” Day, wearing overalls and adorned with flowers in her hair, brought her unique old school soul flair to “But Not For Me” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” Vince Mendoza’s orchestra was pitch perfect and fluid throughout, like something out of a jazz dream on a warm summer night. Which it was.
One of the difficulties in trying to fit as many classics as possible into this kind of show is the absence of any true historical context or understanding of where Ella came from, what she meant to the world and why her legacy is so important. The one transcendent moment that humanized her was when Day explained how Ella’s classic, Grammy winning “oops I forgot the lyrics but can improvise this brilliantly” rendition of “Mack The Knife” came about. Day then did a spot on performance of the tune that was endearing, humorous and energizing.
Another highlight was the masterful instrumental duet of Hoagy Carmichael’s sweetly whimsical “Judy,” performed by violinist Regina Carter and guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. The song, which appears on Carter’s new tribute album Ella: Accentuate the Positive, is the piece that jump-started Ella’s career on the stage of the Apollo Theatre. It would have been nice had Carter explained the importance of this beautiful obscurity before its performance.
Overall, the night of incredible musicianship and beautifully rendered songs fulfilled the mission of the evening, creating sweet memories for the thousands of jazz aficionados in attendance.
Text by Jonathan Widran