A body and soul tribute to Ella Fitzgerald

Special to The Times

Ella Fitzgerald had so many musical qualities to admire that it's no surprise that it took a lineup of five very different singers to explore them in "A Tribute To Ella" Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. And even that wasn't enough to fully display the rich diversity of the First Lady of Song.

The inner creativity -- the quest to make a song her own -- that was at the heart of Fitzgerald's singing was best illustrated by veteran vocalist Mark Murphy. At 75, he's equally comfortable moving from the Swing Era to contemporary pop. Of his three songs, Murphy's ballad renderings of "I'm Through With Love" and "Body and Soul" were the most impressive. Finding the heart of the stories, moving lyrics around, winging freely across the harmonies, he transformed classics into up-to-the-minute interpretations, simmering with emotional density. Just the way Ella would have done.

There also couldn't have been better choices to explore Fitzgerald's cool lyricism, innate musicality and swinging improvisations than Ann Hampton Callaway and Janis Siegel. Both possess extraordinary vocal instruments, and both move easily across the vast range from intimate balladry to up-tempo scatting.

Callaway took on the daunting task of handling three hard-swinging Fitzgerald classics: "Mr. Paganini," "Lady Be Good" and "How High the Moon." And she delivered on every count, applying her unique scatting style and remarkable range, occasionally tossing in whimsical instrumental simulations. The only thing missing was the opportunity to hear Callaway sing a songbook ballad.

The Manhattan Transfer's Siegel, like Callaway and Fitzgerald a singer for all seasons, brought velvety warmth to "Midnight Sun" followed by big-band panache to "Like Young."

Singer-actor T.C. Carson added the hip swagger of the Swing Era to his versions of "Satin Doll" and "Summertime." Strutting an occasional dance step, his feature number exchange on the latter with drummer Ndugu Chancler was one of the evening's visual highlights.

The audience darling, however, was singer Ledisi, a 2008 Grammy nominee for best new artist and R&B; album. Although the jazz skills she displayed on "Fly Me to the Moon" and, especially, a climactic "Blues in the Night," were minimal, her spirited, gospel-driven voice and engaging desire to please were enough to bring a trace of Fitzgerald's beyond-genre enthusiasm to her performance.

Most numbers were accompanied by a big band, conducted by music director Patrice Rushen and filled with the Southland's finest players. The audio, which sounded oddly slanted and muddy, perhaps as a result of the angled bandstand, did not favor the singers, and the most effective numbers in this otherwise entertaining evening were those backed only by the rhythm section and -- for Murphy's selections -- pianist Tom Garvin.

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