Regina Carter: Simply Ella
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall
There is a sweet symmetry to Detroit violinist Regina Carter’s Ella Fitzgerald tribute project, coming to the Wharton Center Friday.
Fitzgerald’s voice matched jazz’s greatest instrumentalists in virtuosity and power. Carter breathes the warmth of the human voice into an instrument that is often pushed to exhibit sheer virtuosity. Their two voices — or instruments — meet in a logical, but surprising, place.
When Carter put together a tribute CD and a live concert series honoring Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, she left many classic songs, like “How High the Moon,” untouched on their lofty shelf.
“I didn’t want to do the tunes people think of, or everyone else would do,” Carter said. “Ella recorded so much music, and in so many genres. I thought, ‘Why don’t I do a B-side record?’”
From Carter’s choice of little-known songs to her use of surprising blues, funk and R&B flavors, it’s clear that she is paying tribute to Fitzgerald, not by imitating her, but by being true to herself.
“If I were a vocalist, I don’t think I’d do a tribute record to Ella,” she said. “I can’t be Ella. There’s only one Ella.”
Some songs at the tribute will begin with a clip of Fitzgerald singing, then segue into Carter’s original arrangement, backed by MSU’s stellar jazz professor Xavier Davis on piano, Chris Lightcap on bass, Marvin Sewell on guitar and Alvester Garnett on drums.
When you’re on a doubtful trail, it sometimes helps if you get a sign. A few years ago, Carter played a fundraising gig for a San Francisco homeless shelter. The promoters left her a gift in her hotel room: a stack of old magazines with Ella Fitzgerald on the cover, and a framed quote that’s pure Ella: “Don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love or inspiration, I don’t think you can really go wrong.”
Carter keeps that quote in her office.
“I take that as her green light that it’s OK for us to do this,” she said. “We’re supposed to take the music, do something different with it. It can’t remain the same.”
As she delved into the project, Carter found new ways to relate to a singer she has loved all her life.
“I learned that she was extremely shy, which you’d never know,” Carter said. “She would sit in her dressing room, drink her tea, read the paper. She really didn’t like going to parties.”
Carter has a similar personality. “I’m extremely shy, to the point where I should introduce myself to someone, say something, but I get in my own way,” she said.
A key to both artists’ personalities can be found in a tune Fitzgerald fans are likely to recognize at the tribute: “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” a jaunty paean to optimism written in the horrific year 1944.
Carter researched the tune and found that lyricist Johnny Mercer got the phrase from a sermon by Father Divine, an African-American evangelist. Carter used it as the title of her tribute album, which at first was called “Simply Ella.”
“Reading the words, and knowing what was going on in the world and how ugly things had turned, I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ It’s the perfect title for this time,” Carter said.
The song’s message seemed to sum up Fitzgerald’s approach to life and music.
“She had a troubled life growing up,” Carter said. “I think of how she, and other musicians and women, paved the way so I could have a viable career in this music, and of some of things she had to deal with — you don’t hear that in her music. Her music seems to be the place where she found her light. That was her safe spot.”
Carter can relate to that as well.
“When we’re playing, I feel like we leave our physical bodies,” she said. “Not just the musicians, but also the audience. It’s our chance, in that room, to come together on a more spiritual plane. When I can let go and go into that spot, it soothes my soul.”
Not content with soothing her own soul, Carter is currently involved in hospice volunteer work, sitting with hospice patients, talking with them, playing the violin for them if they want. She is mulling over a recording project that will draw upon that experience in some way.
“I feel like we here in the Western world don’t really deal with it, it’s such a scary and taboo subject,” Carter said. “I want to find a way through the music to open up those conversations more. It doesn’t have to just be sad. We can use it to celebrate people and find a way to not make it so scary.”