Coinciding with Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday on Saturday (April 25), Concord Jazz is releasing Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! on Friday (April 24). The tribute was recorded at the iconic Harlem, New York venue where the premier jazz vocalist got her start competing in its equally legendary Amateur Night talent show.
Three-time Grammy Award winner and 2010 Latin Grammy producer of the year Gregg Field produced the 2016 Apollo Theater birthday celebration from which the album stems, casting a lineup of contemporary vocalists that included Patti Austin, Andra Day, Ledisi, Lizz Wright, Cassandra Wilson and Monica Mancini, along with special guests. Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! also finds Field revisiting his musical roots: he formerly toured as Fitzgerald’s drummer.
“I didn’t want to bring out this person or that person to just sing a song associated with Ella,” says Field, who also collaborated with Apollo executives Kamila Forbes and Laura Greer. “I wanted to really tell Ella’s story and bring a dramatic element to it. What fans got that evening and will now hear on the album is a wide perspective on who Ella really was.”
For example, Fitzgerald was originally supposed to show off her dancing skills at the talent show. But after watching the preceding sister act warm up the audience before the competition began, she opted to sing instead. Thus, Field opens Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! with actor/singer David Alan Grier (Sportin’ Life in the recent Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess) as the talent show’s legendary host Ralph Cooper introducing a young Fitzgerald to the theater’s famously critical audience.
Co-hosted by Austin and Grier, the concert takes off from there. Alternately accompanied by the Count Basie Orchestra and an all-star quartet including Nathan East and Brian Nova, the aforementioned vocalists deliver aurally riveting performances that underscore why the expressive and vibrant Fitzgerald was nicknamed the “First Lady of Song.”
In addition to songs that Fitzgerald made her own like “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” “The Nearness of You” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” the set also salutes the late singer’s penchant for classic pairings such as her 1958 Porgy & Bess album with Louis Armstrong. Rounding out Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! is a rare track of Fitzgerald performing a poignant version of “People.” Below, Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra perform “When I Get Low I Get High.”
Field’s fascination with Fitzgerald dates back to when, as a 19-year-old drummer, he launched his own career touring with her as well as Sinatra, Count Basie and others. When Fitzgerald’s drummer left her touring quartet in 1985, Field got the call to fill the vacancy and stayed with her for the next two years.
“I can’t imagine anybody that was more naturally gifted than she was,” says Field of Fitzgerald’s enduring influence and authenticity. “She was wired to sing only from her heart. And that’s what always came through.”
Track listing for Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!:
1. Vintage 1934 “Apollo Amateur Night” Radio Broadcast/ “Judy” — David Alan Grier & Ayo
2. Ella 100 Co-Host David Alan Grier Opening — David Alan Grier
3. “A-Tisket A-Tasket” — Patti Austin & The Count Basie Orchestra
4. “When I Get Low I Get High” — Patti Austin & The Count Basie Orchestra
5. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” — Andra Day & The Count Basie Orchestra**
6. “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear from Me” — David Alan Grier & The Count Basie Orchestra
7. “Love You Madly” — Lizz Wright & The Ella 100 All-Star Quartet
8. “The Nearness of You” — Lizz Wright & The Ella 100 All-Star Quartet
9. “Oh, Lady Be Good” — Ayo & Afro Blue
10. “How High the Moon” — Patti Austin, Afro Blue & The Count Basie Orchestra
11. “Back to the Apollo! (Apple)” — The Count Basie Orchestra
12. “I Loves You Porgy / There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” — Patti Austin, David Alan
Grier & The Count Basie Orchestra
13. “Cry Me a River” — Cassandra Wilson & The Count Basie Orchestra
14. “Honeysuckle Rose” — Ledisi & The Count Basie Orchestra
15. “Once in a While” — Monica Mancini & Brian Nova
16. “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini / Paganini Bows Reprise)” — Patti Austin, David Alan
Grier & The Count Basie Orchestra
17. “People” — Ella Fitzgerald
**Andra Day appears on the CD release only