Paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald is almost a priori to the concept of jazz vocalization itself. Her influence spans generations, genres, and instruments. Her voice is the voice of postwar jazz, and, perhaps especially for people of more recent generations, is probably the one that first comes to mind when we think of ‘classics’ or ‘The Great American Songbook’. Jazz violinist Regina Carter likely knew the idea of an Ella tribute wouldn’t be as novel as her previous two albums, but she seized upon the icon’s 100th birthday and took the advice of friends who saw how Fitzgerald’s music had been a constant influence in her musical life and told her, “why not make an album about it?” Approaching Fitzgerald’s work in fresh light, Carter sifted through her extensive discography looking for music forgotten by the charts and time, and set about reinterpreting her work for a voice without words. New introductions and instrumentations on tracks like “All my Life” and “Acc-Cen-Tchu-Ate the Positive” bathe old melodies in harmonic refractions of modern jazz and funk. Gone is the swing constant of Ella’s time: a variety of rhythmic and harmonic patterns are employed to create a sense of timelessness. Yet it is timelessness borne out of the times: the violinist says she wanted to utilize “the love of music” to provide an antidote to the negativity and division frontlining our national discourse—a sentiment embodied by the titular track. Originally, Carter says, the project was through-and-through violin-only—concerned with the propensity of vocals to overshadow the violin in the eyes of venue bookers, she wanted to ensure that her playing could stand alone. At the last minute she caved to gut feeling and added vocals to two tracks, but performs frequently without them, as she did in this concert.
“Ella saw her voice as another instrument,” Carter noted in an interview before the show, and conversely, “I see the violin as a voice.” So much is apparent in her playing. Her sound is utterly distinct: smoother than caramel and surer than day, yet alive with an honest vocality. Mimicry—of Ella or the human voice generally—is never her object, but she stresses her interest in clearly conveying the lyricism of her source material: “you have to know the all the words…I learned that a while back working with Ray Brown (Fitzgerald’s second husband).” Through her sparing use of vibrato, she tends to the subtler inflective range of her instrument, alluding to those analogous in the human voice. The performance in Palmer on Oct. 7, which took form as a quintet, highlighted not only these qualities in her playing but also the spontaneity of her live persona. She effortlessly wove in and out of her vocal role, at some points improvising, at others, feeling her way about the stage by way of the music, giving her band a wide berth to bring out what they wanted while they took the melody themselves. Nothing felt regurgitated or tired, and all on stage seemed to genuinely enjoy their time, acutely attuned to their contribution to the whole, engaging the listener in a seemingly spontaneous, conversational narrative. Marvin Sewell on guitar, Ed Howard on upright bass and Xavier Davis, playing masterfully the trifecta of keyboard, organ and piano, all took generous solos, but never crossed the line into long-windedness. Carter’s husband, drummer Alvester Garnett, was particularly thrilling to watch, constantly riffing off both the rhythm and melodic elements of the musical moment, driving a song forward and responding to it with internal conception simultaneously. Taking an epic, several-minute solo near the middle of the set, Garnett managed to maintain the melodic thread of the song—the crowd was extremely receptive. After a soulful rendition of “Undecided,” (arranged by Marvin Sewell) came a strange and wild pyrotechnic interlude, a catharsis for energy otherwise inexpressible. They ended too well for the crowd, playing a number unnamed and not part of her Ella project, an inventive gestalt of traditional pentatonic melody, jazz, and folk and rock…the crowd, now on their feet, whooped and cried encore several times.
Relenting as the cries continued with no one on stage to receive them, the band chose another of Sewell’s arrangements, “All My Life.” A slower, more sentimental number, as if to temper the crowd’s energy, it seems in retrospect fitting: like Carter’s playing itself, her stage presence and intuition is not showy and seeking virtuosic astonishment, but rather an honest (and, though she seems too humble to say so herself, brilliant) expression of someone who just, as she puts it, wants to “bring love through music.”