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Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald

Iridium, New York City
March 28, 2010, 8pm

Frank Owens, p; Lisle Atkinson, b; Buddy Williams, d.

Review by Steve Koenig

At the crux of art and craft lies the talent of Freda Payne. Always a jazz singer, the Detroit-born Payne is best known from her stint with Holland-Dozier-Holland, exemplified by the No. 1 hit from 1970, "Band of Gold." This was followed up by another much-loved single, which surprisingly received radio play, the anti-war and very danceable "Bring The Boys Home." My friends and I still dance to it. Too many have lost track of Payne in the interim years, and that's time lost.

This tribute to the great Ella Fitzgerald is in the form of biographical anecdotes interspersed between her songs. The show started with "It Don't Mean a Thing, continued through "Mr. Paganini" - done with great style- and "Sweet Georgia Brown." She followed a story about Ella singing at Chick Webb's funeral with a most moving "My Buddy."

A marvelous thing is Payne's ability to emulate her subject, even summon the playful and serious phraseology and timbre of Ella's voice, yet never be subsumed by Fitzgerald, save for a deliberate upward jagged Ella-arc as she did in the "Say-hay-hay-haint Louis Blues." If you listen to some of Freda's live recordings, such as An Evening With Freda Payne, the Ella-ness is definitely there, but you can also hear flavors of Lulu and other smoky voices. They coexist quite well. When you think of Ella, you think of scat. Payne neither overreached nor skimped on her scatting, touching on Ella's stock vocables but not held slave to them.

I often bicker with pals who wallow in Ella's Songbooks and studio albums, which I find pretty but rarely more than that; it's Ella live that slays me (hear the Ella and The Duke at the Côte d'Azur albums for proof). Freda's performance and patter made these songs come alive for me more than most of Ella's versions did. Her "Too Darned Hot" was smoking, especially when she elegantly wiggled her derrière down to the floor. "Miss Otis Regrets" was a gem in her hands. In the introduction to "The Lady Is A Tramp" her voice gruffened and growled and she now became Eartha Kitt, wagging honestly, "but I love her too!"

After telling Fitzgerald's divorce from Ray Brown, she sang, "You've Changed," then imitated Ella's Berlin intro to "Mack The Knife." I must say amid Mackie, Payne did a superbly realistic, noncaricatured Louis Armstrong. During "How High The Moon," Payne did a pyrotechnical arc waaay up high that was as beautiful and focused as it was impressive.

I'm grateful for this tribute performance, which revealed Freda Payne's great showmanship, not only in the singing, but she directed pertinent phrases to individuals in the audience. She had fun with the songs, even when being serious. She also had a laughing nod at Lisle Atkinson, imitating a Slam Stewart-style singing along with the bass. I'd swear each member of the audience felt a few moments of direct eye contact, not an easy trick.

As a tribute to Payne's talent, the room was studded with other singers such as Adam Wade and Tina Fabrique. Like them, I look forward to the next time she's in town. In the meantime, there is her newest release, featured on a handful of songs the David Berger Jazz Orchestra's Sing Me A Love Song: Harry Warren's Undiscovered Standards, where she takes turns with singer Denzal Sinclaire and instrumental tracks (Such Sweet Thunder Records).


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