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Artist:     Various Artists

Album:     Ella 100: Live at the Apollo!

Label:     Concord Jazz

Release Date:     4.24.20

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Ella Fitzgerald’s debut at legendary Apollo Theater was simply unforgettable. Despite faltering at the start, the 17-year-old unknown wowed an audience of grumbling skeptics on Nov. 21, 1934 with a soaring and surprisingly dynamic rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy.” That she had gone there to perform a dance routine, of all things, makes for delicious irony.

Coming to that fateful decision to sing at the last possible minute, Fitzgerald figured there was no way she was going to follow the dancing Edwards Sisters after their show-stopping turn that historic evening. In the aftermath, Fitzgerald grew into perhaps the greatest jazz vocalist of all-time, celebrated throughout the years for her superhuman range, unique phrasing and timing, pristine warmth and scatting acrobatics. To honor the “First Lady of Song,” a dazzling concert was staged at the famed Harlem, New York, venue to blow out the candles for her 100th birthday.

Boasting an incredible lineup of artists, the glorious occasion has been lovingly preserved for posterity on Ella 100: Live at the Apollo! Acting as hosts, Grammy Award winner Patti Austin and comedian David Alan Grier, a multi-Tony Award nominee in his own right, offer a mix of humor and deep reverence for her prodigious talent and genuine humanity, as the spectacle unfolds before an enthusiastic audience. It starts with a vintage 1934 “Apollo Amateur Night” radio broadcast of Fitzgerald’s coming-out party, as original host Ralph Cooper introduces her. Another 17-year-old, the sensational Ayodele Owolabi, soon takes the baton from Fitzgerald to relive the moment, providing a vivid update of “Judy” that spirals heavenward, establishing her up as a worthy heir to Fitzgerald’s unparalleled genius.

The vocal fireworks keep exploding, as Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra swing hard, with a full blast of shiny, golden horns, on “When I Get Low, I Get High” and run through a sunny, cheerful version of the Fitzgerald favorite “A Tisket-A Tasket,” its radiant glow matched only by Ledisi and the Count Basie Orchestra playfully jumping around a summery “Honeysuckle Rose.” Fitzgerald’s palpable influence on the young Howard University singing group Afro Blue is felt on “Oh, Lady Be Good,” as their tight, corkscrew harmonies colorfully pay homage to Ella, before they join Austin and the Basie players in a bright and lively revival of “How High the Moon” that’s an astonishing breath of fresh air.

Moments of stunning beauty are found here, too, as Cassandra Wilson lends her velvety resonance to a rapturous reading of “Cry Me a River” with the Basie crew. And after Lizz Wright nimbly gambols about with the Ella 100 All-Star Quartet on the sprightly ray of sunshine that is their take on “Love You Madly,” she and that same foursome slowly sweep their way across the smoky, ivory-tickling torch song “The Nearness of You,” imbuing the classic with deep longing and drinking in tons of applause in its gorgeous wake.

Only available on the CD release, Andra Day’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” tackles a delicate and sophisticated Nelson Riddle arrangement specially written for Ella and never recorded. It’s a luminous treasure for so many reasons. Chief among them is Day’s captivating delivery, her sandpaper rasp adding grit and truth to the Count Basie Orchestra’s majestic, inky swell. Grier also gets in on the act, singing “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” with all the soul and vibrancy he can muster, and then teaming up with Austin on a whirlwind medley of Gershwin standards from “Porgy & Bess” and the rousing show closer “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini),” a throwback to Ella’s early days. To wrap things up on this LP, a rare recording of Fitzgerald gently massaging the standard “People” appears in what seems like a love letter to everyone she’s ever touched. Every feeling it sincerely expresses is mutual.

—Peter Lindblad

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