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Monday, July 02, 2012

The Sound of Ella

Albany’s Capital Repertory Company kicks off its 2012-13 season with “Ella,” a portrait of Ella Fitzgerald that stars Tina Fabrique and runs July 24 to August 12 (previews start July 20). The show (written by Jeffrey Hatcher) looks at the first three decades of Ella’s career before we see her, in the second half, performing on a pivotal night in 1966. Ella herself made two appearances at Proctors in Schenectady. The first was with Chick Webb’s band in the late 1930s, the second in 1984. It gave me an unexpected opportunity to work with her. Here’s what happened.


Ella Fitzgerald
AMERICAN MUSIC HAS AT its innovative heart the “standard,” a song so compelling that, as soon as it emerges, it’s performed and recorded by everyone of note. Standards are at the heart of American’s most important music, which is jazz. But standards typically originated in shows and movies, and tended to be written by an exalted few: Cole Porter. The Gershwins. Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern.

When, as a teen, I discovered Ella Fitzgerald’s “Songbook” series, it was revelatory. The first set, boasting 32 Cole Porter songs, was recorded in 1956, and over the next eight years she covered songs by Rodgers and Hart, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and, in the only lyricist-based album of the collection, Johnny Mercer.

But the best aspect of those records (now available as a 16-CD set) was Ella’s transparent approach to the material. She’s an interpretive artist who puts a unique stamp on the songs she sings – but she serves the material with unique respect for its intentions.

When Proctors announced Ella’s appearance at the Schenectady theater in 1984, I was thrilled. I was also broke. I’d already been feeling the pinch of being too poor for tickets, having left the world of full-time employment a year earlier. So I pestered Proctors for some other manner of access.

The Proctors people were sympathetic to my plight, and reasoned that, because I’d worked in radio for several years, I could be added to the sound crew. Ella would be performing on Saturday, Jan. 14. I was asked to come in an hour before the sound check to help with microphone placement and foldback.

I had no idea what “foldback” meant.

“It’s the monitor speakers,” one of my more seasoned former radio colleagues explained. You have to set them up so the performers can hear themselves but don’t get feedback.” Feedback – that annoying shriek that starts off so many Public Address System addresses – is caused when a microphone picks up a sound that gets amplified into a loudspeaker that’s facing the microphone, feeding back the same sound to the mic and causing an endless amplification cycle.

But that knowledge wasn’t enough to keep me from feeling like an absolute novice as I showed up for work. “Got to mic the piano,” I was told by way of hello. “Grab a couple of PZMs.”

I had no idea what PZMs were.

Oh, but the crew was kind. Not bend-over-backwards kind, because they had a job to do in a short amount of time and the last thing they needed was an idiot in the way. But I learned that PZM stands for pressure-zone microphone, and that it was a flat, omnidirectional unit considered perfect for pianos.

Other types of mic were placed for drums and bass, and Ella was given the vocal mic of her preference – probably a Shure SM-58, but much of my memory is blurred by panic.

Pianist Paul Smith arrived a little early and ran through some fragments. A tall, rangy fellow with a sense of humor that extended into his music, he’d been working with Ella for years. As had bassist Keeter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham, who arrived soon after with the lady herself.

I’d been worrying all day about what I would say to her when we finally had the chance to meet. Everybody she meets must fall into throes of worship, so what could I do differently? What could I say to stand out from the mob? Do I praise the songbooks? Should I zero in on a song, like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” one of my favorites, and praise her effortless way with it?

She arrived with an entourage that also included Proctors bigwigs and press people, but I was lucky enough to be adjusting a mic stand near the wing from which she entered, and I was the first person she thus saw on the stage. “Hello,” she said, smiling, the two syllables rippling with the music of her unmistakable voice. I grinned vapidly and said nothing.

Tina Fabrique as Ella
After we broke for dinner, I was placed near a corner of the soundboard with the gentle suggestion that I keep my hands away from it, freeing me to settle back and enjoy the show.

Ella entered in a dazzling gown of silver and red and provoked the first of many audience uproars. She swung into her first number – “Night and Day” – and I was a goner. When she sang “The Man I Love,” it was to a discreet piano-only accompaniment. When she roared into “Manteca,” to end the first half, we got all three of her octaves and her tremendous scat-singing skill fantastically displayed.

She’d made an early-in-her-career hit out of “A-Tisket, a-Tasket,” so why shouldn’t she push “Old MacDonald” into jazzland? She did, and it was revelatory.

She paid tribute to Ellington with a set of his more introspective numbers, like “Mood Indigo,” “Satin Doll,” and “Sophisticated Lady.” She paid tribute to – and did an uncanny imitation of – Louis Armstrong with her encore of “Mack the Knife.” The audience couldn’t get enough of her. Neither could I. Even the jaded sound guys sitting near me were clearly impressed.

There’s a dress of hers in the Smithsonian. A statue of her stands by the Yonkers Metro-North station. Her recorded legacy endures and continues to grow, with her Songbooks a never-to-be-bested bulwark. While my sound-engineer career may have begun and ended with that particular concert, it only affirmed my ongoing Ella enthusiasm.

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