Interviews

Violinist Regina Carter Explores the Beauty of Ella Fitzgerald's Music

Howard Reich
Photo: Christopher Drukker
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Carter’s new recording pays homage to the supreme vocalist, who -- at first glance -- might not seem to have been an obvious influence on the world’s pre-eminent jazz violinist.

Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday — on April 25 — has come and gone, but the celebration continues, as well it should.

The next major tribute comes in an unexpected form, not from a jazz singer but from the multifaceted violinist Regina Carter.

Carter’s new recording, Ella: Accentuate the Positive, pays homage to the supreme vocalist, who — at first glance — might not seem to have been an obvious influence on the world’s pre-eminent jazz violinist. Fitzgerald’s art, after all, rests partly on the way she shaped words and the unprecedented technical feats she could achieve with her singular voice.

But Carter fell under Fitzgerald’s spell in childhood and never escaped it (nor wanted to), Fitzgerald’s sound — gauzy, luscious and sublimely expressive — influencing the violinist’s art ever after.

Maybe that shouldn’t come as such a surprise, considering that the violin surely comes closer to evoking the character of the human voice than any other instrument. Carter instinctively made that connection before she was fully aware of it.

“When I was a kid, we had a lot of different music going on in our house — some Nat King Cole, some Ella, some movie soundtracks,” remembers Carter.

“I remember putting on some (Fitzgerald) records and hearing her voice and just feeling so warm and so much love,” adds Carter, reflecting on her childhood in Detroit. “I would love to put those on, because they made me feel so good.”

That’s pretty much the universal effect of Fitzgerald’s singing, but in Carter’s case, Fitzgerald’s impact only deepened over time.

“As an adult, I realized what an incredible voice she had, what an incredible instrument she had,” adds the violinist. “There was a period when I would wake up every morning and put on Ella: Ella and coffee, that’s what I needed to get through the day.”

Not long ago, Carter was trying to decide what to do for her next recording project, an important decision considering the stylistic breadth of her earlier albums. The folkloric traditions she explored on Southern Comfort (2014), the African musical lineage she traced on Reverse Thread (2010) and the classical themes she pursued in Paganini: After a Dream (2003) reflect the range and depth of her interests (as one might expect of a MacArthur Fellowship winner).

Carter creates albums, in other words, not simply to make records but to enrich our understanding — and her own — of particular musical realms.

When a friend pointed out that Carter constantly listens to Fitzgerald and has recorded several Fitzgerald classics — including “Oh, Lady Be Good” (on the “Rhythms of the Heart” album) and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (on “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey”) — the next project seemed apparent.

But Carter, who generally zags when the rest of the world zigs, took a characteristically unconventional approach. You won’t find Fitzgerald landmarks such as “How High the Moon", “Flying Home", “Mack the Knife” or “Airmail Special".

“I didn’t want to do the tunes that people probably think of when they think of Ella,” says Carter. “So I decided to go through my collection and record some of her B-side hits. There’s some really beautiful material that a lot of people are either not familiar with, or they forgot about — until they hear the melody.”

Thus Carter turned to “Judy", one of the Connee Boswell hits that a teenage Fitzgerald sang in 1934, winning first prize during Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Add to this tunes such as “Crying in the Chapel", “Reach for Tomorrow” and “I’ll Never Be Free", and Carter clearly has come up with an alternative perspective on Fitzgerald’s enormous oeuvre.

Winnowing down the repertoire possibilities “was just like (exploring) a tree branch,” says Carter. “You think you’re going in one direction, and then it branches off into so many others.”

Above all, Carter understood what some lesser artists do not: There’s no point in attempting to imitate the inimitable Ella, not even on the fiddle.

“I wouldn’t even try,” says Carter. “I just wanted to take these tunes that I thought were really beautiful and do something fun with them. It’s a nod to her, but having a little of myself and my experience come through musically.”

For there’s no way to match Fitzgerald’s work — it’s only possible to respond in personal ways.

“You can’t even explain Ella,” says Carter. “She didn’t go to school to try to learn that. She was just: I’m listening and doing what the cats (in the band) are doing. … I think she heard it and internalized it, and that’s what came out.

“Sometimes I say I believe in a higher power of God,” adds Carter. “He puts a little something in each of our pots when he’s making us.

“And there’s certain people that got a lot.”

In jazz, none more than Fitzgerald.

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