Perhaps there's a dearth of great songs out there. Maybe artists just want to interpret the tunes they loved way back when. Whatever the reason, there has lately been a wave of tributes and tribute albums.
In the past few weeks, we have seen the release of A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, a star-studded affair featuring the likes of Bjork, James Taylor and Prince interpreting the poetically complex songs of the singer-songwriter. There's also The Sandinista! Project, a song-for-song remake of the Clash's sprawling 1980 Sandinista! album, done mostly by up-and-coming indie-rock acts.
And this week, We All Love Ella, a tribute to the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald, hits stores. The release of the CD, featuring such marquee names as Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan and Queen Latifah, coincided with a lavish PBS telecast tribute, which premiered last night .
In the iPod age of constantly shuffling playlists, such a project clings to the fading idea of an album, a collection of songs one absorbs as a whole. With illustrious all-star casts of today's big names, tribute albums also potentially introduce great music of yesterday to folks who otherwise wouldn't hear it.
"The Ella tribute is a celebration, a hug and a kiss to this great lady," says veteran producer Phil Ramone, who oversaw We All Love Ella. "But beyond that, it's the magic of someone saying, 'I can do this.' It's about passing the music on to another generation."
On another level, We All Love Ella is a showcase for the modern pop and jazz stars to reveal what they learned from the First Lady of Song, whose dynamic vocal innovations forever changed the genres.
"Like Louis Armstrong, Ella's phrasing affected the style of all vocalists and instrumentalists who heard her," says Antonio Garcia, director of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "She could sing slow and exposed ballads or blisteringly agile improvised solos, either of which the most skilled jazz instrumentalist or pop singer can still be challenged to duplicate today."
It's a challenge few are willing to take - though it must be noted that Patti Austin pulled off a fine imitation on For Ella, the singer-songwriter's Grammy-nominated album from 2002. As the new tribute CD reveals, the legend's breathless, pitch-perfect scat style still breathes in the music of Ledisi, a gifted urban artist from Oakland, Calif., whose Verve debut, Lost and Found, is scheduled for August release. Her stomping rendition of "Blues in the Night" is one of the highlights on the tribute CD.
"For me, I've become the vessel to show the younger generation the importance of jazz," says the 30-something performer. "It's the first hip-hop. I feel like I'm carrying on the tradition. I try to interpret jazz in everything I do."
We All Love Ella makes an effort to connect with those born after the 1982 invention of the CD. The tribute album includes a bonus track called "Airmail Special," a mouth-dropping scat vocal performance by Nikki Yanofsky, a 13-year-old Canadian who makes her American recording debut on We All Love Ella. Gifted with a crystal tone, much like Ella's, and an expansive range, the pint-sized dynamo discovered the legend's music three years ago while surfing iTunes.
"I was hooked," says the singer, whose debut will be released in September by EMI Canada. "Her music is very authentic. It's a breeze for her to sing even complicated songs. That's what I like about her. Nobody sounds like her now."
Probably no one will ever sound like Ella. There could only be one. The ultimate challenge of the tribute album is to rekindle interest in the music and perhaps spark new innovations.
"Personally, I don't like tribute albums," Ledisi says. "But I'm glad they're there. I'm hoping that albums like the Ella tribute will in some way push artists to do something new. Ella did her thing and broke ground. You honor the artist you're celebrating by elevating the art."