No one could doubt the affection in “To Ella With Love,” a concert tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that brought Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra (among other admirers) to the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night.
Singing “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” Austin clearly savored the playful lyric that Fitzgerald helped adapt to turn the nursery rhyme into her first hit single. And before she performed “I Love Being Here With You,” Carmen Bradford appeared to tear up as she recounted a story about finding one of her albums in a CD player at Fitzgerald’s Beverly Hills home shortly after the famous singer’s death in 1996.
“She was listening to my music,” Bradford said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Yet at a moment when the vocal jazz realm that Fitzgerald once dominated is more alive than it has been in years -- thanks in part to the work of imaginative young singers such as Gregory Porter and Cecile McLorin Salvant -- Wednesday’s show felt like a missed opportunity to reconsider Fitzgerald’s legacy. Occasionally, it even suggested a serious misapprehension of her artistry.
As described by Tavis Smiley, who served as the evening’s host following an introductory performance by L.A.’s Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the organizing idea was a loose re-creation of “Ella and Basie!,” the well loved 1963 album that paired the two jazz giants (along with Quincy Jones, who wrote the record’s arrangements).
So you heard Bridgewater replicate Fitzgerald’s scatting in “Honeysuckle Rose” while the Count Basie Orchestra revved the song’s hard-swinging rhythms. You heard Austin bring a prim sensuality to “Satin Doll” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” And you heard the two come together for a sprightly rendition of “Mr. Paganini,” which isn’t actually on “Ella and Basie!” -- though the anachronism hardly seemed like something to get worked up about.
Bridgewater and Austin were fine; they reiterated the established knowledge about Fitzgerald -- the warmth, the exuberance, the clarity of tone -- just as the former did in 1997 on her album “Dear Ella” and the latter did on 2002’s “For Ella.”
But if either woman has done much thinking about Fitzgerald over the last decade, she didn’t show it at the Bowl. Why, then, build this program around them? Why not include someone like Salvant, whose thrilling 2013 record “WomanChild” demonstrates how applicable Fitzgerald’s enduring gifts are to music that reflects our era?
Commending the crowd for filling the venue (or coming close anyway), Austin said she didn’t know there were that many people left with the good taste to appreciate Fitzgerald’s music. We’d better play it for our children, she added, or we’d be in for trouble.
Yet Fitzgerald herself seemed uninterested in that type of stylistic guardianship. Her mid-'60s recordings of songs by the Beatles and Hank Cochran may not be among her most revered, but they made clear that she favored a wider cultural view, not a narrower one.
“To Ella With Love” took a step toward that sensibility with Yuna, a young pop singer from Malaysia whose participation spoke to the diffuse quality of Fitzgerald’s influence (even if her “You’ve Changed” was pretty conservative).
And I suppose the inclusion of Clint Holmes, the schmaltzy Las Vegas cabaret-meister, was a sign of progress -- or at least of the belief that Fitzgerald’s example is durable enough to withstand more than earnest duplication. But his manhandling of songs from “Porgy and Bess,” performed here in a duet with Bridgewater, was so broad and over-the-top that I began to long for Austin’s more austere presentation.
Did Holmes mean well? Sure, probably. But while Fitzgerald may have flirted with sentimentality, she was never corny; there was a dignity to her performance that Holmes’ goofy mugging lacked completely. He was sending love to Ella but no understanding.