By Cristina Schreil

Call it the ultimate birthday gift.

Astute listeners might have noticed that Regina Carter is a big Ella Fitzgerald fan. The First Lady of Song’s classics are sprinkled throughout Carter’s repertoire. For example, she performed “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on an album dedicated to her mother, who sang Fitzgerald’s songs to Carter growing up.

As for many of us, her admiration for Fitzgerald comes from a heartfelt place. The eclectic jazz violinist recalls her childhood home in Detroit. There, listening to records was standard practice. Her father would throw on easy listening radio; her brothers, the Beatles or Motown records. Carter’s teacher would send her home with European classical-music records and there were always movie soundtracks and jazz records lying around. Around eight years of age, she was coming across new albums and giving them a listen. “I remember the first time putting on an Ella record, hearing her voice. I just totally melted,” she recalls. “I think it made me feel warm and safe. It totally took me into a daydream state, if you will.” Carter, a 2006 MacArthur fellow, attests that Fitzgerald is undoubtedly among her top five favorite artists of all time. She adds that listening to Fitzgerald as an adult musician revealed the depth of the vocalist’s virtuosity. “I realized what an incredible voice she had, an incredible instrument. Her technique was amazing. Just what she could do listening to and imitating the instruments in the band. And the joy that still comes across when you listen to any Ella recordings.”

Carter knew the 100th anniversary of Fitzgerald’s birth, on April 25, called for a special tribute. “Why don’t I do a whole record and celebrate her?” she remembers asking herself. Spending an entire year on the project, Carter dug into a vast library of recordings. If she found tunes that really spoke to her, she offered them to different arrangers in her band and went from there. The album, Ella: Accentuate the Positive, out April 21 on Sony Masterworks, contains arrangements of Fitzgerald’s more “off-the-beaten-path” songs. “I call it her B sides, if you will,” Carter says.

But what perhaps resonated with her most was uncovering the personal life behind the name. It’s a natural thing for Carter to investigate; following her MacArthur grant, she released two albums exploring her ancestral past, and the music intertwined with it. Researching Fitzgerald led to new insights. “Finding out that she was incredibly shy was so interesting to me,” Carter says of Fitzgerald. “It’s something that I have in common with her.” She also learned more about Fitzgerald’s gritty path to stardom, beset by discrimination on top of a turbulent childhood. “I might assume that for someone with that life, the music would be more dark. I don’t feel any of that darkness or negativity at all. I feel like she channels it into something really positive. When I listen to her, it’s love and brightness and lightness.”

Speaking days before taking the album’s “Simply Ella” tour to Italy, Carter delved into her research method, how she captured Fitzgerald’s signature singing style, and the importance of honoring a fellow female artist of color.

“I want to inspire young girls and women to work hard, be business savvy, be supportive of one another, and to discover their own voice.”

Why focus on Ella’s not-so-known tunes?

There’s some beautiful, beautiful music out there that most people either have forgotten about, or don’t remember the titles to. I didn’t want to do the same tunes that everyone thinks of—the first tunes you think of when you think of Ella—because I felt so many musicians might make 100th birthday tribute records. And there’s so much music that she recorded besides the American songbook: she listened to pop music, Doo-wop music, she sang some Stevie tunes, she sang some country western. There’s all kinds of stuff. That really resonated with me because my taste in music is all over the map. I just love music and there’s not one style or genre of music that I like.

How do you mix genres here?

I didn’t want to do a necessarily straight-ahead jazz record. I wanted to tap into my Motown roots and pay homage to my hometown, Detroit, by putting a ’50s/’60s soul vibe to the arrangements, sort of like a Mavis Staples or Otis Redding vibe.

Speaking of Detroit, you were just honored by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. What was that like?

When I was a child, my mother would take me to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Ford Auditorium. I would look down from the balcony and envision myself being a soloist with the orchestra. When I received word that I was being honored by the DSO, I was blown away. My dream of soloing with this incredible orchestra had come to fruition . . . I am humbled.

What was your research and selection method for the album?

In going on the internet and looking up information maybe a tune would pop up, or information about a tune, and I’d start researching that. It’s like a tree branch, once you click on one thing these five other branches appear, so you could just keep going and going and going. And I did. I really took my time with this and just really listened.

When I ask someone to arrange a tune, I don’t just want to say, “Here’s a tune, arrange this.” I give them at least three or four tunes to listen to and to see if anything resonates with them. I think that’s important for an arranger, for them to like the tune, or for them to have a connection. A couple people wrote back and said, “No, do you have other tunes?” And I would send them another batch. [When it worked], I’d hear an idea of the direction that they were going in and then try to play with that idea on my instrument to see if that was going to work.

How would you determine if it would work?

Some of these songs [have] a really beautiful or grooving melody, something that I really like, but it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work on my instrument, with me playing it. I have to play through tunes and arrangements to see if they fit. That’s really important. Then I’d have to play through some of them and we’d have a rehearsal and record them and say, “What can I do?” or “What can we do to the band to make this work?” Sometimes I just had to let it go.

What’s a tune that you knew immediately would be included?

“Crying in the Chapel” [arranged here by bassist Ben Williams]. That was on the B-side of her single “When the Hands of the Clock Pray at Midnight,” recorded on Decca, which was a hit for her. I loved the melody of it. It slightly reminded me of “Body and Soul.” It was just a very lyrical melody and I felt like it would play perfectly on the instrument. And it’s funny because when I play that tune for the audience—because a lot of people don’t necessarily recognize these tunes—I’ve had people say, “Oh yeah I do recognize that tune” and other people don’t, but it’s such a beautiful melody that people end up liking it.

What’s your creative process, specifically in reviving a tune but making it your own?

Usually I try to listen to several people that have recorded it, both vocalists and instrumentalists, so I can get different perspectives. And if it’s a tune that has lyrics, then I definitely learn those first. I feel like you have to respect the words in order to understand what it is you’re supposed to be playing and be able to create the mood of the tune. And then I’m trying to play the words on my instrument as well, so people feel like they’re hearing them. I think just automatically, because I’ve been playing and listening for so long and have developed my own voice, that my voice is just going to come through on recordings regardless. The way I approach melodies and my own little idiosyncrasies, if you will, come through when I play that make it my own. No one’s going to say, “Oh, you sound like Ella on violin.” Someone might hear and say, “OK, I can hear you’ve been influenced by that person.” The goal is not to try and sound like Ella or the musician who is being celebrated but to pay homage to her and put my own spin on the tunes.

How does one capture or emulate Ella Fitzgerald on the violin?

That’s a very interesting question because Ella was imitating the instruments that she heard in the band. The way she sang and the way she was able to imitate those instruments is unique to her as a vocalist. So then, I’m an instrumentalist listening to a vocalist who’s trying to imitate an instrumentalist, you know? [Laughs.] It’s all about her phrasing, how she approaches the lyric, maybe just her inflections if you will. Even with the use of her vibrato. I can take information: her use of vibrato, or maybe there’s a killer solo that she scatted, which I can transcribe.

Why did you choose her tune “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” for the album’s title?

When it was time to do this, it was maybe a month after the election. The country just seemed so negative and so dark and sad. Just [with] the things I was seeing on social media, what people would say to each other and some of the incidents that were starting to happen, it just felt very ugly . . . I was like, “You know what? We’ve got to ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.’” It just hit me. That’s what we need right now.

We’re speaking during Women’s History Month. What does it mean to be a female artist of color paying tribute to the legacy of another—especially one who faced adversity in the business because of race and gender?

As I sit here in disbelief as to what is currently happening in our country politically, I realize women and many other groups still have a fight—a long road of work—ahead of us. I think about all of the inequalities with which women before me had to deal. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Abbey Lincoln, and so many more had an additional set of struggles, being women of color. I am indebted to these women who fought and persevered so that female artists could have a presence in this music. I want to inspire young girls and women to work hard, be business savvy, be supportive of one another, and to discover their own voice. If a situation doesn’t recognize or include you, create your own. We can’t get comfortable—there’s still a lot of work to be done.

What would you ask Ella if you could?

First, I would thank her for all of the incredible music, joy, and enormous legacy she left. I would ask her if at any point during her tumultuous childhood, she ever dreamed of how successful she would be as a musician. I’d ask how she dealt with her feelings stemming from situations where she was told she couldn’t perform or dine somewhere due to the color of her skin. I’d also ask if she ever doubted herself.

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