Regina Carter, a virtuoso jazz violinist who has also dabbled in other genres, presents Simply Ella, her tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, at the Perelman Theater.
One might be surprised that an instrumentalist would find a vocalist to be so inspirational and influential. But just as Carter was inspired by classical master violinists Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin (she took master classes from both) and jazz violinists Stéphane Grappelli and Stuff Smith – she considers Smith her “Bible” – she was equally inspired by Fitzgerald.
“It’s the way that she delivers the melody and the way she gets inside of a tune,” Carter said in a telephone interview while on tour in Michigan. “There’s no way you won’t understand what that tune is about when you hear Ella sing it. She was a genius.”
Carter added: “And it was so natural for her. It wasn’t like she was sitting up in anyone’s university, trying to learn this. She learned it because she loved the music and learned it from the cats she was hanging out with.”
Carter discovered in her study of violin that she could – and should – learn much from good vocalists.
“When I transferred to Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, I went to the big band director there, Marvin ‘Doc’ Holladay, who played with Dizzy (Gillespie) and many others, and I told him I wanted to play jazz. And he told me to stop listening to the violin players I was listening to and to listen to vocalists and horn players. He said for the phrasing and the breathing.
“And then I remember meeting the great ‘Big Nick Nicholas,’ and I was playing a tune, a vocal tune… and he said, ‘Do you know the words to that tune?’ And I said ‘No.’ And he said, ‘I can tell by the way you’re playing it. You must always learn the words.’ And that was such important and vital information. Because if you don’t know the words, then you’re just messing around with a melody.”
She added: “And you know, people always say they can hear the words when I’m playing, and that means a lot to me, because I’m really trying to sing those words through my instrument.”
Carter, who had previously included compositions that had been performed by Fitzgerald on albums and in her live repertoire, decided to record an entire album of songs associated with Fitzgerald in honor of what would’ve been the iconic song stylist’s 100th birthday. “Ella: Accentuate the Positive” (OKeh/Sony, 2017) features 9 songs that had been recorded by Fitzgerald. Some you might not recognize.
“I know so many people love Ella. And I knew many musicians would do tribute records to her. I didn’t want to do the tunes that most people think of because of that,” explained Carter. “And she has such a wealth of music out there. Not only swing, she loved doo wop, she loved Stevie Wonder, R&B… she loved music, period.”
Carter said she also felt more artistic freedom covering material that was known to fewer people.
“It was fun, because then I felt like I had more liberty to mess around with the arrangement of the tunes, without people getting upset, because a lot of people don’t know the tunes,” she said.
Although Carter initially intended for the album to be all instrumental, she was inspired to add vocals to 2 songs. Miche Braden sang on the title track. And longtime friend Carla Cook, who first introduced Carter to Grappelli and other music while in the 9th grade, sang on “Undecided.”
“Originally, I was not going to have vocalists on the record, because I didn’t want people concentrating on that. But, in the end, something in my spirit moved me, and I knew I wanted Miche on “Accentuate” and Carla on “Undecided.” It was Cook who suggested to Carter that she record an entire album dedicated to Fitzgerald.
The Simply Ella concert will of course feature much of the material from the album. But Carter will keep with tradition and not create a set list in advance.
“I have a very large book of repertoire,” noted Carter. “I try to do a good amount of the tunes from the record, but I like to also add other tunes that we enjoy playing. I don’t have a set list that we use. If you look in my violin case… (the musicians) always tease me because I have like a thousand pieces of paper with set lists on them.
“We do sound check. I get a feel for the hall. I’m like, ‘what do I feel that day?’ Then it’s like, ‘what do I feel like opening up with?,’ and I’ll come up with a set list. And depending on the vibe that I get, the energy from the audience, I might change up the set. So, it just depends on the energy and what the spirit kind of moves me to play at the moment.”
Carter will be accompanied by Marvin Sewell on guitar, Chris Lightcap on bass, Xavier Davis on piano and Alvester Garnett on drums. All four are on the “Accentuate the Positive” recording.