Are there many greater female voices that have graced the planet than Ella Fitzgerald? You certainly don’t get bestowed the title of “the First Lady of song” for no reason. An innovative and original voice, her impact and influence still lives on today through countless artists, but it can never be imitated – the American singer was a singular tour-de-force.
Noted particularly for her clarity, phrasing, articulate diction and timing, not to mention her deftness at improvising horn-like melodies and scat singing around structures, Ella’s voice is as memorable for her solo feats as it is her collaborations with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Her ability to transport listeners back to another time and place is penetrable, and is something that struck a chord with London-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Donna Thompson. With her tribute mix, The Total Refreshment Centre affiliate wanted to translate that “jazz can be enjoyable and accessible” for all, and what better artist to channel that message through than Ella.
Working chronologically, Donna traces the timeline of Ella’s catalogue, picking out songs that, for her, conjure up wonderful memories, while below she disseminates the impact that the jazz great has had on her own pathway into music and where she is today.
Donna’s debut EP Something True will be released on 22nd July on PRAH Recordings.
Why does Ella Fitzgerald mean so much to you?
Ella Fitzgerald is important to me because she played a huge part in creating sounds and styles of vocal performance and delivery that are still imitated and utilised to this day by many artists. She set the bar very high when showing how to be an artist of note.
What makes an Ella Fitzgerald record so unique?
For me when I put on an Ella record, I instantly feel transported back to the early jazz scene even though I never saw it. I feel the influences of her life aren’t just brought through by the lyrics but the choice of melody, instrumentation and supporting harmonies and vocalese that she plucks and uses as ornaments for the arrangement. She paints a picture of that era very well.
When did you first hear Ella’s music and what impact did it have on you?
I first heard Ella Fitzgerald when I was asked to learn some songs for a house band that played weekly in the lockside lounge, Camden. I was around 16/17 and had been sneaking out and going to watch my friends play mainly Emo and grunge music, set on being a drummer. My college tutor at the time was playing there and soon became my first mentor and as he was playing jazzy music I became more into hearing in that way. I really enjoyed the nuances and the diversity of expression.
What’s your most sacred Ella Fitzgerald record and why?
“Ella in London” live at Ronnie Scott’s 1974. The atmosphere on this record is electric! I just love that she brought her magical vibes to my home city.
Any standout memories from dropping an Ella Fitzgerald track in a set?
I remember singing a cover of ‘Whatever Lola Wants’ at the Jazz Café and the band played so well, along with the audience really enjoying it. That was the first time I felt like a real singer.
How has Ella impacted you as a musician?
When Ella Fitzgerald sings, she interacts with the instruments playing in such a fun way. Her voice weaves it all together. When it’s a large arrangement, you can often hear Ella imitating melodies that would have been usually played on horns but embellishments that add her authentic stamp to what’s written. Improvisation around the structures is something that I use in my music. Also, the way the vocal sits in the mix, regardless of arrangement, always highlights the tones that Ella uses to emphasise and sometimes maximise the feel of the music.
How did you approach this mix? What did you want it to say about Ella and their music?
With Ella having a career that spans several decades, there was a lot of her music to choose from. So to narrow it down, I approached this mix by firstly choosing songs in her catalog that for me have good memories associated with them. I also wanted to make a musical timeline from her earlier work to the later years. I wanted it to say “jazz can be enjoyable and accessible”.
What would you say is Ella Fitzgerald biggest legacy on music?
For me it would be Ella’s pioneering technique of improvisation. She would sing like her voice was a horn and sing over all the changes with fiery dexterity. To hear the voice used as an instrument in this way rather than a purely lyrical element is something that is regularly incorporated into most types of popular music but referred to as melisma. She wasn’t the only artist to do this but she was incredibly gifted at it and definitely stands out to me as a key creator of this style of singing.