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Celebrating and chasing Ella

Vocalists backed by an all-star orchestra explore the singer's work but can only come close to her primacy.

August 15, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

How great was Ella Fitzgerald? So great that even the line of well-known jazz vocalists whofilled the Hollywood Bowl's stage Wednesday for "To Ella With Love" couldn't quite match the First Lady of Song's inimitable gifts.

Singers Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cleo Laine, Kevin Mahogany, Janis Siegel and Denzal Sinclaire probably would be the first to acknowledge Fitzgerald's primacy. To their credit, they worked hard to celebrate her music and her life in the best way possible -- by exploring material associated with Fitzgerald.

The presentation was relaxed and amiable, each artist offering a solo number, after which all remained on stage.

Alternately singing individually, occasionally together, they roved across songs from "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" to "How High the Moon," underscoring the extraordinary range of Fitzgerald's interpretive talents.

The individual presentations often reached in considerably different directions. Bridgewater's superheated scat singing on "Lady Be Good" and "Mr. Paganini," for example, emphasized over-the-top theatricality rather than cool, imaginative swinging.

Mahogany fared a bit better on his own impromptu scats, but his balladry -- especially a rendering of "Sophisticated Lady" that failed to make the best of a sterling big-band arrangement -- occasionally verged on disaster.

Sinclaire offered sweet, Nat Cole-influenced interpretations, but it was Siegel (especially during an inventive chorus on "Cottontail") who best found the Fitzgerald rhythmic touch, and Laine, with her stunning voice, who recalled Fitzgerald's superb way with a ballad.

Singers were accompanied by an all-star orchestra conducted by Patrice Rushen. But they failed to identify each of the numerous players as they took their solos -- among them guitarist Tim May, tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Ken Wild, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez (showcased on "Stars Fell On Alabama") and drummer Ndugu Chancler. It's an omission Fitzgerald would never have made.

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