The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra did right by Lady Ella in Saturday night’s concert at Robinson Center in Little Rock.
The symphony’s two-hour “A Tribute to Ella” Fitzgerald showcased 22 of the songs she made so perfectly hers. The program spanned from 1938’s jazzy nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” her first hit, to “How High the Moon” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
Philip Mann directed the symphony’s accompaniment to three guest vocalists, all with Broadway credits: Capathia Jenkins, Nikki Renée Daniels and Aisha de Haas.
Fitzgerald’s silky, soaring voice was hers alone, from high as “Get Happy” to bluesy as “Blues Skies.” None of Saturday night’s singers tried to mimic her take on the songbook, but the Queen of Jazz herself might have got happy over their versions of the classics.
Highlights included Jenkins’s sassy “Blues in the Night,” Daniels’s hot and soaring “Summertime,” and Haas’s scat singing on “Mr. Paganini.”
The orchestra channeled Count Basie for the occasion, playing up the horns and drums and thumping bass, with times when Louis Armstrong could have jumped right in.
“This is one of the few orchestras in the United States that has a big band inside of it,” Mann said. They rolled out “Take the A Train” as an instrumental, and a percussion-driven “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
The night ended with a trio and orchestra performance of “Mack the Knife,” a standing ovation and encore, “I Got Rhythm.” It lacked only the clink of glassware in a smoky room at 2 a.m.
Fitzgerald would have been 100 this year (she died in 1996), or 101 on April 25. With friends like these to celebrate her legacy, her music will go on to guarantee the next century, too, plenty of what it takes to mean a thing.
“A Tribute to Ella” repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday at Robinson Center. More information is available at arkansassymphony.org, or by calling (501) 666-1761.