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Ella 100: Live At The Apollo

In brief:
"It was a seamless, joyous evening, the Count Basie Band smoothed by the added strings of the Big Apple's top freelancers"

Ella Fitzgerald’s modesty and cunning as a teenager in 1934 helped her to opt for singing as a career. At Harlem’s Apollo Theatre she was queueing to perform a dance at its weekly amateur talent night. On stage before her were the Edwards Sisters, employing a more ironic coyness in a dance with discreetly moveable fans. It was no go for Ella; she decided to sing instead.

The song was an approximation of Hoagy Carmichael’s Judy as sung by Ella favourite Connie Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. The titillating Edwards Sisters were remembered by Gregg Field, the drummer who on leaving Basie replaced Bobby Durham in Ella’s trio from 1985. He produced the 100th birthday celebration for her preserved on this album.

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It was held at the very same theatre and began with a simulated “radio broadcast” of Ella’s appearance. (How did radio work 82 years earlier for dance contestants? Tap, one assumes.) Field scripted the radio slot reconstruction for the centennial, and the Carmichael chart was delivered by Howard University singer Ayodele Owolabi.

It was a seamless, joyous evening, the Count Basie Band smoothed by the added strings of the Big Apple’s top freelancers. Co-hosts Patti Austin and David Alan Grier also gave their vocal all, splendidly so in I Loves You, Porgy and There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (Grier has been a notable Sportin’ Life in the opera). That was arranged by Field and others, including pianist Shelly Berg, who featured in an Ella-style quartet with the soulful Lizz Wright for Love You Madly and The Nearness Of You. There was, of course, plenty of scat-singing, the most cheer-leading example coming from Ledisi with the Basie boys in a Benny Carter arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose.

Modern band arrangements elsewhere included those by Patrick Williams for A-Tisket, A-Taskit (Austin), How High The Moon (Austin with the close-harmony group Afro Blue) and You’ll Have To Swing It Mr Paganini (Austin and Grier). The Nelson Riddle arrangement of Ain’t Misbehavin’ for Andra Day was written for Ella but never recorded by her, and Chick Webb’s for Austin on When I Get Low I Get High was recognition of Ella’s association with his band. Cassandra Wilson was mesmerising in Cry Me A River and Monica Mancini superbly soft-focused in her duet on Once In A While with guitarist Brian Nova. Owolabi joined her Afro Blue co-singers for Oh, Lady Be Good, and Basie trumpeter Scotty Barnhart stepped forward for a couple of solos.

There were no passengers in this impressive cast list. For a tribute to the best, only the best will do.

Discography
(1) Radio show simulation; (2) Show intro; (3) A-Tiskit, A-Taskit; When I Get Low I Get High; (4) Ain’t Misbehavin’; (5) Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me; (6) Love You Madly; The Nearness Of You; (7) Oh, Lady Be Good; (8) How High The Moon; (9) Back To The Apollo!; (10) I Loves You, Porgy/There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York; (11) Cry Me A River; (12) Honeysuckle Rose; (13) Once In A While; (14) You’ll Have To Swing It (Mr Paganini); (15) People (79.32)
(1) Ayodele Owolabi (v); David Alan Grier (emcee); Shelly Berg (p); Trevor Ware (b); Will Matthews (g); Ray Nelson 11 (d). (2) David Alan Grier (emcee). (3) Patti Austin (v) Count Basie Orchestra. (4) as (3) but Andra Day (v) replaces Austin. (5) as (4) but David Alan Grier (v) replaces Day. (6) Lizz Wright (v); Berg (p); Brian Nova (g); Nathan East (b). (7) Owolabi, Afro Blue (v); Bobby Floyd (p); Matthews (g); Ware (b); Nelson II (d). (8) Austin, Afro Blue (v); Count Basie Orchestra. (9) as (8) but Austin, Afro Blue out. (10) as (9) but add Austin, Grier (v). (11) as (10) but Cassandra Wilson (v) replaces Austin, Grier. (12) as (11) but Ledisi (v) replaces Wilson. (13) Monica Mancini (v); Nova (g). (14) Austin, Grier (v); Count Basie Orchestra. New York, 22 October 2016. (15) Ella Fitzgerald recording: Ella (v); Tommy Flanagan (p); Frank de la Rosa (b); Ed Thigpen (d). Budapest, 1970.
Concord Jazz CJA00280

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