Hollywood Bowl Salutes 100 Years of Diz & Ella

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Dizzy Gillespie (left) and Ella Fitzgerald were subjects of a star-studded tribute at the Hollywood Bowl on July 19.

(Photo: Courtesy hollywoodbowl.com)

The city of Hollywood enjoyed a great summer breeze and the Los Angeles Philharmonic offered up a crowd-pleasing gem of a July 19 tribute to the 100th birthdays of Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald to keep the picnickers sipping champagne in their seats. It was an evening of unwavering straightahead jazz, peppered with understated spots of brilliance but mostly just pleasant. The throwback machine was in full force.

Trumpeter Jon Faddis’ self-proclaimed All-Star big band blasted through a set of Dizzy Gillespie tunes to open the show. They were properly billed. Pianist Billy Childs, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash were featured often, with Childs cutting loose on a few tunes, brandishing his elbows for “Manteca,” a tune Nash opened with some agile palm-drumming.

It would be hard to handpick a better backing trio. When Washington went into an intricate dive on “A Night In Tunisia,” the audience quickly reached a revered hush, the bassist captivating an audience that might be difficult to tame at a fraction of the size. (Riffing on the threesome’s “folically challenged” appearance, Faddis referred to them as “our hairless rhythm section.”) The trumpeter was generally goofy on the microphone, fully embracing Gillespie’s jester persona, joking often and relishing in the silence that accompanied his punchlines.

Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson filled the role of Charlie Parker’s ghost, just as he did for the 1988 Clint Eastwood biopic Bird. He was the most adventurous soloist and, at 77, likely one of the oldest musicians to grace the stage that night. He pushed hard on “Groovin’ High,” piercing the big band’s support with shrill cries and earning a standing ovation on the churning “Things To Come.” Faddis took his fair share of solos, too, losing nothing in his high register and delivering hard-swinging ferocity.

The Ella Fitzgerald half of the evening featured a unique cavalcade of r&b singers, one jazz singer, a violinist and an orchestra of strings and horns. The set often paid tribute to the lavish George Gershwin songbook Fitzgerald recorded in the late 1950s. It wasn’t the most adventurous set, but it was entertaining and embodied the regal poise if not the soul of the First Lady of Song.

The charming Lizz Wright tackled “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Embraceable You” with a straight delivery amid a swirl of strings. Jane Monheit took things in a different direction with her bawdy pussycat routine, running her hand through her hair as she slyly purred through “Love For Sale.” She was the purist jazz vocalist of the lineup but didn’t run away with any of the opportunities to step out.

The most captivating of the guests was violinist Regina Carter. Stone-faced, she swung through “Lady Be Good,” evoking “A Tisket, A Tasket” with pithy aplomb. Carter approached the tunes with a freedom and soul that was in short supply on the stage. Her sound was crisp but relaxed.

The highlight of the set occurred when Carter and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. got right down to it. With just 10 strings between them, the duo filled the 18,000-seat venue with playful swing and enviable interplay on “Judy,” the tune that helped launch Fitzgerald’s career at the Apollo nearly 85 years ago. They evoked the incomparable duets between Fitzgerald and guitarist Joe Pass and did so with refreshing confidence. Someone please get them into a studio together.

None of the vocalists took a shot at scat singing, one of Fitzgerald’s specialties, and likely because the lineup wasn’t loaded with jazz singers but pop interpreters. Andra Day did take a stab at Fitzgerald’s most serendipitous goof on “Mack The Knife,” reiterating phrase by phrase what had been for Fitzgerald an improvisation but has now become a composition. But the playfulness of Fitzgerald’s on-the-fly response loses its luster with each photocopy.

Leslie Odom Jr., doing his best Sam Cooke impression in a taut, fitted tux, gently swung through “Someone To Watch Over Me” with the orchestra set to peak schmaltz while Faddis returned to join Odom for Cole Porter’s “Night And Day,” a decidedly more forceful performance.

There was no encore. Or even a group performance. None of the guests interacted with other guests on the bill, and spontaneity was in short supply. The connection to Gillespie felt much deeper, with the big band fully embracing the sound and history of the great trumpeter. The Fitzgerald set played out more like a rotating set of guest vocalists who looked good on the marquee but have a limited connection to Fitzgerald or the intricacies of jazz phrasing.

But when the weather is nice, everybody looks good and the sounds are swinging, it’s hard to complain too much. DB




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July 2021
Julian Lage
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