PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 3, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival

by Jim Newsom

It’s an all-vocal lineup for the 10th Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival at Christopher Newport University. Considering that singers have been among the festival’s most popular performers—past headliners have included Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves and Peter Cincotti—this direction may come as no surprise. However, previous rosters also included edgy instrumentalists like McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. There’s nothing comparable this year.

Perhaps this move in a more commercial direction is understandable. When the new Ferguson Center was built, Ella Fest moved from the intimate, 400-seat Gaines Theatre to the new 1,700 seat concert hall. There are more tickets to sell now and, presumably, the budget—and the risk—has grown. Still, there are local jazz aficionados who mourn the transition from better to bigger.

That having been said, though, this year’s schedule includes three great singers. And Wednesday night’s opening show spotlighting the University’s own vocal and instrumental ensembles is always a treat.

The first headliner is Bobby McFerrin on Thursday, April 19. You know him as the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” guy, but he has proven himself to be much more than a one-trick pony. Winner of ten Grammy awards, McFerrin has reached far beyond his original jazz/pop incarnation to find a home in the world of classical music, conducting major symphony orchestras around the world. He brings his twelve-member Voicestra with him to CNU for a wide-ranging concert that will ignore and explode the boundaries between musical genres.

Jane Monheit’s Friday night concert is a return engagement for the young chanteuse. The last time she was here, she was a highly touted unknown, but she made quite an impression on the local assemblage. Now a singing star and sex symbol, she’s established herself as one of the most popular of the new generation of jazz divas.

Smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti joins Monheit this time around. He’s been called this generation’s Chet Baker and has collaborated with a who’s who of the music biz, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Sting, building a fan base of starry eyed women while carving out a niche of his own to become that rare instrumental musician who can sell out a room on all by himself.

The biggest name in this year’s Ella Fest is Natalie Cole, headlining Saturday night’s grand finale. Daughter of the great Nat King Cole, Natalie has had a lengthy career that began with R&B hits like “This Will Be” and “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” in the ‘70s, before flirting with jazz standards when she laid down “When I Fall in Love,” one of her daddy’s big hits, on the 1987 album, Everlasting. In 1991, she dove headfirst into her family legacy with the multi-Grammy tribute, Unforgettable, with Love, containing the famous technologically produced duet with Nat. These days she’s mixing old and new, her voice strong and her appeal undiminished.

Opening for Natalie is Charlottesville drummer/composer Robert Jospe and his band, Inner Rhythm. Over the last few years, “Jos” has turned out an excellent string of recordings, filled with pulsing percussive polyrhythms and multi-cultural currents. He’s been making a name for himself on the national jazz scene and will undoubtedly light up the rafters of the Ferguson.

Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival
Ferguson Center for the Performing Arts
All shows begin at 8:00 pm

April 18 – CNU Jazz Ensembles with special guest Steve Zegree
April 19 – Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra
April 20 – Jane Monheit and Chris Botti
April 21 – Natalie Cole with Robert Jospe & Inner Rhythm

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.