April 25, 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of an event that would have a profound impact on jazz and American song: the birth of Ella Fitzgerald. While the centennial of the First Lady of Song will doubtlessly be celebrated in myriad forms, few will prove as heartfelt or sincere - or as long in gestation - as Comes Love, the new album by Boston-based jazz vocalist Patrice Williamson. For the occasion, Williamson teamed up with guitarist and fellow Berklee College of Music faculty member Jon Wheatley for a set that pays particular homage to Fitzgerald's landmark duo with guitar great Joe Pass.
Due for release on Ella's birthday, April 25, on Williamson's own Riverlily Records and produced by pianist/composer Helen Sung, Comes Love features a dozen Songbook classics originally either recorded by Fitzgerald and Pass on one of their four studio albums or performed live by the duo during the course of their notable collaboration. Williamson and Wheatley never resort to sheer imitation (not that such a thing would even be possible given their two inimitable models), but instead conjure the warm elegance and graceful swing of the originals through the alluring chemistry of their own inviting rapport.
"I started listening to recordings of Ella during my sophomore year in college, and I haven't stopped." Williamson says. "Jon has a vast knowledge of all the great jazz musicians and jazz guitarists, including Joe Pass. Our goal was to present how Ella and Joe have inspired our own musical development."
Fitzgerald and Pass first joined forces in 1973 for Take Love Easy (from which Williamson takes four of the tunes on Comes Love, including her renditions of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and Billy Eckstine's "I Want To Talk About You"). They would enter the studio three more times over the next thirteen years, releasing Fitzgerald and PassŠAgain in 1976, Speak Love in 1983 and Easy Living in 1986. A number of live performances have also been released from that period, revealing the pair's genuine camaraderie, incisive wit and impeccable taste.
While Williamson can wax rhapsodic about much of Fitzgerald's work (and dreams of following Comes Love with a series of tributes, each exploring a different facet of Ella's career from small bands to orchestra), she found herself particularly drawn to her work with Pass due to its vulnerability and purity.
"I loved the simplicity, vulnerability and command the duo had without the assistance of bass and drums. Some of the first recordings I heard of Ella were with big bands. So, stripping down to one accompanist allowed the pureness of her sound to come through clearly. Joe provided harmony (chords) and bass. Ella added melody and emotion. They both had impeccable time, so together they delivered rhythm and swing. Their performances always sounded whole and complete which is a testament to their brilliance."
Comes Love has been lurking in the back of Williamson's mind for nearly 17 years, conceived at the turn of the millennium as she realized that Ella's centenary was fast approaching. But the seeds for the idea were planted long before, during the singer's childhood in Memphis. Her earliest memory of Ella came through the iconic vocalist's early-70s commercials for Memorex cassette tapes ("Is it Ella or is it Memorex?"), but she truly fell in love with Ella's voice as her choir director father played his cherished LPs for his music-loving daughter. "I liked the music," she recalls, "but I really liked how Ella scatted because I thought it was silly. That built the foundation for this inspirational person in my life."
Williamson's tastes turned more to the popular music of the time - Prince, Madonna, Janet Jackson - as she entered high school, but while studying classical flute at the University of Tennessee she fell in with the jazz crowd, who she says were "much more fun" than her classical classmates. Wanting to sing with her new jazz friends, she rediscovered her passion for Ella and began taking lessons. "I remember telling my teacher, 'I want to scat like Ella,'" she recalls. "She looked at me and said [sternly], 'Well, girl, you're gonna have to work.' Ella was there when swing and bebop were evolving, and she's a talent that we haven't seen again in the jazz vocal world. I just thought, 'Challenge accepted.'"
Encouraged by UT faculty jazz pianist Donald Brown, Williamson headed to New England Conservatory to focus full-time on her voice, under the guidance of award-winning RCA recording artist Dominique Eade. She's since become a favorite at Boston's celebrated Regattabar, joined the faculty at Berklee College of Music, traveled the world singing in such far-flung locales as Seoul, South Korea; Singapore; New Delhi, India; and Perugia, Italy; and co-founded the vocal trio E.S.P. with fellow singers Emily Browder and Sandi Hammond. Both of Williamson's independent recordings, My Shining Hour and Free to Dream, have received high praise from jazz critics around the country.
When she began searching for a collaborator to help her realize Comes Love, Williamson quickly discovered that Wheatley was on everyone's short list of recommendations. One listen to his understated, lyrical playing on the album reveals why, as does a resume that includes stints with jazz greats like Ruby Braff, Herb Pomeroy and George Masso. Williamson ran into the guitarist (in her telling, it's nearly an ambush) in the copy room at Berklee, and the two forged an almost immediate connection. "We played a little bit in his office and that's all it took - I was in love," Williamson enthuses. "That first little jam session was eye-opening because I was suddenly singing songs that I've been singing for the last 20 years in a completely different way."
Helen encouraged Patrice to choose a personal theme for the album. Williamson, having recently ended an incredible relationship, chose songs with melodies and content that held a personal resonance. She found this process to be remarkably cathartic.
Beyond the tribute to Ella, Comes Love uses Songbook standards to loosely trace the story of a long-term relationship coming to an end. A narrative shared by Ella and Patrice: "I've had some wonderful love affairs and some that didn't work out. I don't want to dwell on that and I don't want to put people down, but I think of all the fabulous places I've been, the wonderful things that have happened for me, the great people I've met - that ought to make a story." - ELLA FITZGERALD