This week marks the 91st birthday of the late Ella Fitzgerald, a singer whose three octave range and playful sense of swing, inspired and awed both fans and fellow artists alike for nearly sixty years.
Although she was a beautiful woman with a sweet and intensely expressive face, Ella was never confident about her appearance and often apologized for not being glamorous enough. One of her original mentors, Chick Webb, was himself initially unsure about her suitability for fronting a band; however, as soon as Ella was given the chance to sing, the audience response was so positive that there was no further question. In 1937, Ella’s career took off when she was voted Number One Jazz Vocalist and her popularity never really faltered. Ella sold over 40 million records and won 13 Grammy awards. She often collaborated with Louis Armstrong, and embraced ‘scatting’ as her own personal art form. (‘Scat singing’ is listed in dictionary.com as: ‘singing in which the singer substitutes improvised nonsense syllables for the words of a song, and tries to sound and phrase like a musical instrument,’ but if you don’t know what scatting is, you owe it to yourself to seek out some footage of Ella in action. She’s amazing!)
Last year a tribute album called We All Love Ella was released to commemorate her 90th birthday. Big names ranging from Chaka Khan to k.d. lang showed up to do an Ella song, and although this kind of record can sometimes be quite dreadful (just because you like the material does not mean you can or should sing it) happily, this album really works. We All Love Ella also provides a good introduction to the vast spectrum of Fitzgerald’s work – the woman cut over 200 albums – and more importantly, validates her coolness to a younger, newer audience who may not be familiar with her.
There are a few tracks that really shine and Queen Latifah’s version of ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ is one of them. Her delivery is sophisticated and pitch perfect with a side order of sass – Ella would definitely approve!
If you need to have a really good cry (the kind you can only have when alone in the house) then Lizz Wright will help you on your way with 'Reaching for the Moon.' With spare string accompaniment as a backdrop to haunting, Nina Simone-ish vocals, this melancholy song is simply beautiful. Thank goodness, the next track by Ledisi reaches out and pulls us up again, as she belts out “My Mama done told me!” and you'd better believe this talented girl means it. Bluesy, swaggering and deeply sexy, Ledisi’s cover of ‘Blues in the Night’ is fresh and convincing. Listen up for her tinkling giggle at the end!
Diana Krall does ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ with much acclaimed jazz pianist, Hank Jones, who was Ella’s own accompanist for many years making the song especially poignant. Krall’s tribute is measured out in smoky velvet syllables and totally translates. Hank’s understated yet essential piano presence moves at exactly the right pace.
This album works because everyone – including producer Phil Ramone – was really sincere about representing Ella in the most stellar way possible. I think that is the best tribute of all.
Part of the sale proceeds from We All Love Ella will go to the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation.
Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/scat singing (accessed: April 21, 2008).
Jazz: A History of America’s Music
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, 2000.