By Don Heckman
The L.A. Philharmonic came up with a great celebration of the memory of Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night.
The evening began with a stirring big band salute from the always-exciting Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra – an appropriate beginning, given the long association Ella had with big bands, from her early years with Chick Webb to frequent associations with the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
It was additionally appropriate that most of the program was enlivened by the crisp, swinging backing of the current Count Basie Orchestra, now led by trumpeter Scotty Barnhart.
Add to that the stirring presence of singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Patti Austin. Not only are both ladies at the very top echelon of the current jazz vocalist world; they also are imaginative musical artists, fully capable of bringing the same sort of mesmerizing interpretations in their singing that were always present in Fitzgerald. Which is exactly what they did on this memorable evening.
Also present, adding the sort of musical versatility that Ella always favored, contributing their own impressive skills, the evening’s guests included young Malaysian pop singer Yuna, the musically versatile singer Clint Holmes, pianist Shelly Berg (offering his authentic view of the Basie piano style) and drummer Gregg Field.
And, in one of the night’s most touching moments, singer Carmen Bradford tearfully recalled visiting Fitzerald’s home after Ella’s death, and discovering that her latest recording was present on Ella’s CD player. Still captivated by her feelings, Bradford then delivered an emotionally vibrant version of “I Love Being Here With You” – a highlight in an evening glowing with highlights.
Among the many other stellar moments, here are a few that will no doubt remain in the memory banks of the enthusiastic, near capacity audience:
– The Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra only played four numbers, including “Cottontail” and “Basie/Ella Blues,” an improvised scat vocal transformed into a hard-driving big band number by John Clayton. But everything they offered provided convincing testimony of the still-vital big jazz band genre.
– The same could be said of the Count Basie Orchestra, repeatedly providing glorious memories of an era when big jazz bands and jazz vocalists represented marriages made in musical heaven.
– Dee Dee Bridgewater, as always, was masterful with every phrase she sang. And she sang a bunch, from her solo renderings of “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Mack the Knife” “Tea For Two” and “Blues in the Night” to duet pairings with Holmes on songs from “Porgy and Bess” and a soaring, scat-filled duo with Austin on the Fitzgerald classic, “Mr. Paganini.”
– Patti Austin was equally versatile, equally articulate musically. In addition to her duet with Bridgewater, she paired with Holmes on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Her solo moments (with the Basie Orchestra backing) glowed on “Satin Doll,” “Them There Eyes” and “I’m Beginnig to See the Light.” And Austin was the chosen voice to recall Fitzgerald with the unforgettable classic, “A Tisket A Tasket.”
– The less familiar guest vocalists made their own engaging tributes to Ella. In addition to his duos, Holmes scatted with tons of swing and enthusiasm on “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” and Yuna added a personal touch to “You’ve Changed” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me.”
As I said earlier, it was a memorable night, surely one that touched the heart strings (and the rhythm strings) of Ella Fitzgerald’s many fans.
So, kudos to the L.A. Phil for its marvelously entertaining tribute to the “First Lady of Song.”