Violinist Regina Carter speaks about her musical idol.

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….

Photo by Christopher Drukker

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