Ella Fitzgerald was once one of the pillars of the Hollywood Bowl season — indeed, the annual gig kept her going in the last years of her career — with sold-out audiences doting on her every word. These were lovefests, from the performer to the audience and back, and that unique atmosphere cannot be replicated. Nevertheless, the Ella tribute at the Bowl Wednesday night was something special and yet different — an extremely well-organized concert with five singers taking turns feting Ella directly, sometimes obliquely, sometimes thrillingly.
Rather than the usual parade of individual sets by the singers — with its hierarchical pecking order — this concert was more of a revolving affair, where each singer gave way to the next after one song, remaining onstage at all times. What a great idea: No one overstayed his or her welcome, and an appealing collegiality radiated from the stage.
Yet pressed to pick a favorite on this given night, it would have to be Janis Siegel, who put on a virtuoso display of bright, clear, nimble vocalizing every time. She was also the best scat-singer of the lot — she interpreted “Robbin’s Nest” supremely well and knocked out a truly sassy “Too Darn Hot.”
Dee Dee Bridgewater is already an old hand at Ella tributes — all her featured numbers and charts came from her 1997 “Dear Ella” album (Verve) — and her best shot was a gutsy, brassy treatment of “Mr. Paganini.” Cleo Laine, now 75 but with her idiosyncratic style and range amazingly intact, turned in one of her most ingratiating sets of performances in memory, even when focused more upon Billie Holiday (“Fine and Mellow”) than Ella. Her husband John Dankworth decorated her vocals with eloquent lines on soprano and alto saxes and clarinet that bespoke paragraphs about their long, intimately entwined lives.
Kevin Mahogany wasn’t always showcased in his best light, but his rich, understated baritone seemed best suited for “One for My Baby,” with Bobby Rodriguez’s muted trumpet summoning the spirit of Harry “Sweets” Edison. In the context of this gathering, Canada’s Denzal Sinclaire sounded more straightforward and not as individual nor as jazzy as his colleagues.
The Patrice Rushen-directed big band staffed with L.A. jazz and studio stalwarts read through the charts expertly, with some power and fire. And each singer came out firing at the show’s opening in an introductory medley of tunes about and associated with Ella, and all closed with a round-robin scat extravaganza on “Cotton Tail.” Both of these group gestures risked anticlimax, yet none occurred; they formed an electrifying set of concert bookends.