Show Starts: 7:30 pm
Doors Open: 6:30 pm
Freda Payne, celebrated R&B and jazz vocalist, who shot to fame with her #1 Hit, “Band of Gold,” and “Bring the Boys Home,” pays tribute to the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, as no one else can! Payne, the star of such Broadway shows as Jelly’s Last Jam, Sophisticated Ladies and Blues in the Night, “recreates the spirit of Ella” with her renditions of “A Tisket, a-Tasket,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” and “Mack the Knife,” as well as many other Fitzgerald classics.
When one singer pays tribute to another, you often learn as much about the object of veneration as about the performer carrying the torch. So it is with Freda Payne’s celebration of Ella Fitzgerald at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency. In the show, which runs through Sunday, Ms. Payne, fondly remembered for her 1970 hit “Band of Gold,” sings Fitzgerald’s signature songs, concentrating on the numbers that lean more toward jazz than toward the standards on her songbook albums.
That Ms. Payne can even begin to duplicate Fitzgerald’s scat-singing interludes attests to her formidable technique and swing roots. (In the half-decade before the predisco “Band of Gold” Ms. Payne recorded jazz albums and understudied Leslie Uggams in the Broadway show “Hallelujah, Baby!”) Even today not many jazz singers can deliver scat improvisations with the velocity and timbral control that Fitzgerald wielded while tossing off passages that suggested another language passing through her, the jazz equivalent of speaking in tongues. Ms. Payne can not only do it, but the voice she adopts for the task is strongly reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s, especially at the upper end.
But for all their similarities of tone and phrasing, you rarely feel that Ms. Payne is channeling Fitzgerald or consciously trying to imitate her. Her touch is heavier, and her personality and singing earthier. Where Fitzgerald planted herself on the stage like a monument and snapped her fingers as the rhythm jetted from her like water from a stone fountain, Ms. Payne never seems detached from the physicality of singing. At Tuesday’s opening-night show she moved with the music. The post-Motown edge with which her band — Frank Owens on piano, Wilbur Bascomb on bass, Buddy Williams on drums and Bill Easley on reeds — inflected to swing arrangements suited her voice.
In the show Ms. Payne sketches Fitzgerald’s life and times, beginning with her breakthrough at an Apollo Theater contest at which she intended to dance but at the last minute switched to singing. Career landmarks — her first hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and her professional partnership with Norman Granz, who thought up the songbook albums — are duly noted.
Fitzgerald in her prime occupied an ethereal realm that, no matter how hard she swung, seemed closer to heaven than to earth. Ms. Payne, securely earthbound, gazes in wonder at the Milky Way.
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