For Cleo Laine, the remarkably gifted English vocalist whose four-octave plus voice endures even at age 70, there’s never been any question about who was the First Lady of Song: Ella Fitzgerald. In fact, Laine said she might not be the singer she’s been throughout her illustrious 45-year career were it not for that regal jazz vocalist, who died in 1996 at age 78.
“Ella had so many things you could aspire to,” said Laine, in a conversation from the vacation home she and her husband, saxophonist-composer John Dankworth, share in Sonoma, Calif. “You didn’t want to be like her. To copy any of those great singers is like committing professional suicide. But they all had something that you wanted to achieve. So . . . what I’m capable of doing is because of her, because she set a standard.”
Laine and Dankworth will appear Sunday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The program will be a tribute to Fitzgerald, fittingly titled “Forever Ella.” Laine will offer tunes directly associated with the hallowed one, among them “How High the Moon,” a number on which Ella always scat-sang, an art in which she had few peers.
“Ella could create on the spur of the moment,” Laine said. “And while I’m a scat singer, too, I would never say that I’m in that category. Luckily, my improvisation went in a different direction. But . . . it all came about with Ella being the governor, as it were.”
On the Alex bill are such mainstays of the Fitzgerald repertoire as “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” her first big hit done in 1938, and “Mr. Paganini,” another popular number that appeared on the 1961 Verve recording, “Ella in Berlin.” To flesh out the show, Laine will draw on the wealth of popular songs that Fitzgerald, and hundreds of others, including Laine, have offered for decades.
“There are very few numbers in the American popular songbook that I could sing which Ella didn’t touch in some shape or form,” said Laine. “But we don’t do everything as she did. We do these songs as John and I do them.”
Among the numbers Laine might deliver on Sunday are the Gershwins’ “Lady Be Good,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing).” The latter numberis drawn from her recent RCA album, “Solitude.”
Laine broke into singing in London in 1953 with Dankworth’s band and has gone on to make scores of recordings--from jazz to pop to show tunes--and she has worked as a stage and film actress.
Dankworth, a superb Charlie Parker-influenced alto saxophonist and first-rank clarinetist, and his trio, which sports noted Bay Area pianist Larry Dunlap, will open the concert with a pair of instrumentals before turning their accompanying efforts to Laine.
Last June, Laine became the first jazz artist to be made a dame by Queen Elizabeth. Dame Cleo, as you may call her, received her medal at Buckingham Palace and was so excited, she almost made a tremendous faux pas. “I almost forgot to back away,” she said. “At the very last minute, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m turning my back on the Queen.’ It’s not an easy thing to do, backing away when you’re not used to it.”
* Cleo Laine, with John Dankworth’s quartet, appears in “Forever Ella” at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Tickets, $25-$35, from Tele-Charge (800) 233-3123 or at the Alex box office (818) 243-2539.
COOKING AT THE BAKED: Two evenings of smoking, jazz-fusion guitar await you at the Baked Potato. Tonight, Frank Gambale strolls over from his more-than-occasional Thursday spots at La Ve Lee in Studio City to heat things up. Then on Friday, it’s the equally volatile Jeff Richman, who brings along Judd Miller, known for his way with the EVI (electronic valve instrument). On Monday, the Baked goes Latin with veteran conga drummer Francisco Aquabella, who made a name playing with Dizzy Gillespie. His group includes the rising trombonist Isaac Smith.
* The Baked Potato, 3787 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood; music nightly 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., $10 cover, two-drink minimum; (818) 980-1615.