Violin virtuoso Regina Carter pays tribute to Fitzgerald at Conn College

Regina Carter (Courtesy reginacarter.com)
Regina Carter (Courtesy reginacarter.com)

It's one thing for us Average Folks to have heroes — or at least hold in high regard the citizens we'd like to emulate.

It's interesting, though, to remember that sometimes even famous, accomplished people have idols, too.

Take, for example, Regina Carter, the virtuoso violinist and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient whose explorations into various musical styles are visionary and inspired. While she diligently studied European classical music and composers as a child, Carter also discovered Ella Fitzgerald by accident — and a life-long artistic connection was established. This has culminated in an album called "Ella: Accentuate the Positive," released in April, and a subsequent "Simply Ella" tour, which brings Carter and her excellent band to Connecticut College's Palmer Auditorium for a concert Saturday.

"It's interesting because I just stumbled onto this pile of my parents' vinyl they weren't listening to anymore. Ella, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole ... And the first time I heard Ella's voice, it offered me this safe, warm tone in which I could just zone out," Carter says by phone last week.

Carter's early classical path lasted until she was at the New England Conservatory of Music, when she realized that, in fact, jazz was her passion. She studied with Marcus Belgrave at Oakland University in Michigan and first gained traction with the jazz-pop group Straight Ahead. She moved to New York City, did session work an array of stars from Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige to Billy Joel and Dolly Parton.

Eventually, she started a solo career and her muse has resulted in albums rooted in classical, Motown, Afro-Cuban, swing, bebop and, three years ago, the "Southern Comfort" album, a masterpiece study of Deep South roots music.

Throughout,though, Fitzgerald has remained a significant force in Carter's life. "As a grown-up, I began to recognize not just her brilliance as an artist but that she was someone truly special. Her records are the first things I'd put on in the morning to start my day."

Of course, that 2017 is the centennial celebration of Fitzgerald's birth played a part in "Ella: Accentuate the Positive."

"I knew people would celebrate her birthday because she's so universally loved," Carter says. "And in the past I'd recorded a few of her songs. So I'd been thinking about doing this album for over a year. The thing is, I definitely had people in my ear saying I needed to do familiar songs and use a vocalist. But part of the reason for doing this album, to me, was to NOT do a straight-ahead tribute. I wanted to explore more than just the usual songs, and I wanted to use my own strengths to do it."

In addition to relatively obscure material from the catalog and a paucity of singing — only Miche Braden and Carla Cook contribute lead vocals on the title track and "Undecided," respectively — Carter applied some true creativity in the stylistic arrangements. With stellar guests including guitarists Marvin Sewell and Chris Lightcap, keyboardist Xavier Davis and drummer Alvest Garnett, Carter uses funk, gospel, blues and country appliques to lesser-known gems like "Judy," "Crying in the Chapel," "I'll Never be Free" and "Reach for Tomorrow."

The conceptual twists are always refreshingly clever. And though die-hard Ella fans might find some of the arrangements a bit startling, every take on the album crackles with the sort of energy and performance that strongly suggests the players were having a blast. And, at the heart of it all, is Carter's dark, honey-rich violin — with those fluid and heartfelt lines tapping into Fitzgerald's spirit and power.

The recording sessions also provided a perhaps unanticipated boost for Carter and the musicians. "In making this record, we were able to at least partially escape all of the ugliness going on in the world," she says. "When you're in the studio, the music becomes your whole world. You're playing with people you love, playing music that you love — and that's all that exists for the moment.

"You know, I was originally going to call the album 'Simply Ella,' but in the midst of all this craziness, I realized that title of that one song, 'Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive,' which is a phrase from (the great Harlem preacher) Father Divine. And it perfectly represented Ella's attitude."

That sense of renewal and conviction permeates the album and Carter's vision for the project. 

"I think Ella would approve," Carter says. "I know I can't sound like her voice with my violin, but I wanted to honor her with my own instrument. And she loved so many types of music — from jazz and country to doo wop and soul — that I felt we had the permission, if you will, to play with the styles and arrangements. Where there's love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong. That was my approach."

Regina Carter, 8 p.m. Saturday, Palmer Auditorium, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London; $28, $25 senior citizens, $14 students; (860) 439-2787.

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