Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Jazz on the Brain

Back on March 2, Matt and I took in the L.A. Philharmonic’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since and am just getting around to it now.

I didn’t expect to love the show. In my mind, the artists voluntarily inserted themselves in a “damned if you do/damned it you don’t” situation: either I would hate it because the singers would try to replicate Ella’s signature singing style (a la a cover band) and just not be able to hold a candle, . . . or I would hate it because they would depart so far from her style with their own interpretations of the songs that it wouldn’t really be a tribute. But, dear Matt, knowing that I love Ella, got the tickets as a special gift, so I was determined to go in with a more open mind.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is set up as a theater in the round. Unfortunately, the stage was set up so that the performers faced in the opposite direction from our seats, so we spent the majority of the night staring at the back of everyone’s head. Luckily, the theater is, of course, also set up acoustically so that the sound is good wherever you’re sitting.

Taking the stage were the singers T.C. Carson, Ann Hampton Callaway, Ledisi, Mark Murphy, and Janis Siegel, backed up by the L.A. Phil and lead by Patrice Rushen. Rushen, whom I found delightful, hosted, directed the musicians, and supplied some masterful piano accompaniment. Each singer sang individually, belting out 13 songs in all, and then joined together for the finale.

T.C. Carson and Ledisi were quite amazing, truly talented, and they both exuded an ease and pure joy that captivated me. Carson, also an actor and dancer, really wowed us with his barefooted song and dance interpretation of “Summertime.” Brought the house down. The other performers, however, were annoying in one way or another. While Siegel and Hampton Callaway had decent range, the delivery and stage presence of each seemed more akin to what I’ve seen of wedding and lounge singers. Rushen hyped Murphy as a legend in his own right, but I was none too impressed with him either. Perhaps he was something to see/hear in his prime, but the bloom has long since fallen off the rose. He seemed a little too impressed with himself, self-indulgent in his name-dropping asides, and lacking in the elocution and energy department.

One of the things for which Fitzgerald is most remembered (besides her peerless voice, of course) is her scatting ability. As you might imagine, the performers did a great deal of it throughout the night. Unfortunately, as much as I really like the concept of improvisational jazz and, therefore, scatting as the vocal form of it, I just can’t bring myself to like how it actually sounds. From Ella, I can stand it. These guys? Not so much. Siegel, in particular, had me cringing. She had this signature, high-pitched “trumpet” (pew-WEEE!!!) sound she really enjoyed making (often) that had a similar effect on me that nails on a chalkboard do.

The night was not a bust though. As I mentioned, Ledisi and Carson were excellent and worth the price of admission by themselves. And, besides that, Matt happens to make a great date. We had a lovely dinner and great conversation about jazz, music in general, and other art forms. And then, the next day, I came across this John Hopkins article about jazz, creativity, and the brain and found it really interesting to read as I reflected on the previous night’s performance.

This is a “making-of” clip of the Verve recording of a tribute to Ella album. It includes a few snippets of Ledisi. Amazing.

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