Review: Ella Fitzgerald is easy to love — but harder to honor — at the Hollywood Bowl
Maybe the third time will be the charm?
In 2014, the Hollywood Bowl presented a concert tribute to the late, great Ella Fitzgerald that had its heart — but not its mind — in the right place. With warmly respectful performances by Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater and others, “To Ella with Love” paid tender homage to the legendary jazz singer yet failed to advance or deepen our understanding of her artistry.
On Wednesday night, the Bowl — which hosted Fitzgerald on numerous occasions before her death in 1996 — took another shot at a proper celebration.
Again it fell short, though this time the thinking was more ambitious.
Timed to commemorate the birth centennials of both Fitzgerald and the late Dizzy Gillespie, “Ella and Dizzy: 100 Years, 1,000 Memories” assembled a diverse cast of young vocalists to perform some of Fitzgerald’s signature numbers with accompaniment from the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. (The evening, hosted by “NCIS: New Orleans” star CCH Pounder, began with a set of Gillespie tunes played by a lively jazz band featuring trumpeter Jon Faddis.)
Promisingly, the singers embodied an array of different traditions: R&B for Andra Day, jazz and roots music for Lizz Wright, big-band pop for Jane Monheit, Broadway for Leslie Odom Jr. (who won a Tony Award last year for his role as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton”). Regina Carter, the veteran jazz violinist, was also on hand, as was the pianist Patrice Rushen, known for her work with Stevie Wonder and George Michael, among many others.
In her introduction, Pounder referred to the musicians as “today’s most creative artists,” which was perhaps a bit of a stretch. But together they did hint at the remarkable range of Fitzgerald’s music, as when Wright gave a low, lush reading of “The Way You Look Tonight,” followed by Carter’s sprightly, almost Appalachian rendition of “Oh, Lady Be Good!”
Elsewhere in the show, Day brought some soul-music melisma to “But Not for Me,” while Odom used a stripped-down “Nice Work If You Can Get It” to nod to Fitzgerald’s durable partnership with guitarist Joe Pass.
If they were speaking their own language, though, the performers weren’t speaking it with much confidence; these were awfully tentative renditions of songs that can withstand far rougher handling. Wright’s “Embraceable You” was pretty but too studious; Odom’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” had romance but no real longing.
After that number, Odom admitted to the crowd how “nerve-wracking” it was to try to live up to Fitzgerald’s “legacy of excellence.” And of course you could understand where he was coming from.
Yet one aspect of Fitzgerald’s genius was her kindly sense of authority — the conviction you could always hear in her music, even at its most delicate.
Day got closest to that near the end of the concert in a funny, forceful take on “Mack the Knife” in which she reproduced Fitzgerald’s famous improvisation after the older singer forgot the song’s lyrics in a 1960 live recording.
It was the only time Wednesday that you sensed Fitzgerald’s spirit, not just her sound.
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