Weekender: Patrice Williamson brings a legend to Tufts with ‘Ella and Me’

This Sunday, Oct. 8, accomplished jazz musician and Tufts faculty member Patrice Williamson will perform as part of the Tufts Music Department’'s Sunday Concert Series. (Courtesy Photo D&D Pro Imaging)

Accomplished jazz musician and Tufts faculty member Patrice Williamson will take the stage in Distler Hall to perform “Ella and Me” as a part of the Tufts Music Department’s Sunday Concert Series on Sunday, Oct. 8.

Her performance, stemming from her most recent album, “Comes Love” (2017) featuring guitarist Jon Wheatley, will be a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald with covers of jazz standards that Fitzgerald produced with Joe Pass in the 1970s.  

Although Wheatley will not be joining Williamson for the show on Sunday, their connection on the album is tangible, which Williamson said is intentional.

“Jon is a very interesting gentleman. He’s very unique with an incredibly dry humor,” Williamson said. “He and I have formed a wonderful friendship and a great partnership,” she added.

Fitzgerald and Pass recorded in a raw way, simply recording themselves as a guitarist and a vocalist, which inspired and intrigued Williamson, who used the same arrangement with Wheatley.

“It’s two people making music so they’re equally responsible for what’s going on,” Williamson said. “I wanted to emulate [Fitzgerald’s] energy when she’s working with Joe Pass. That intimacy.”

Williamson, who released the album on Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, explained her intentions behind the tribute to the jazz legend.

“I’m trying to highlight the way she’s influenced my own artistry but I’m doing it in my way, not her way,” she said.

While Williamson has acknowledged that critics say she sounds nothing like Fitzgerald, she insists that she had no intention to imitate the icon, if only because doing so would be attempting the impossible.

“That wasn’t the point,” she said. “There is only one Ella Fitzgerald. I arranged the songs in a way that follows a story. It’s based on my personal experience. I’m really big on storytelling.”

Williamson’s album reflects her own lived experiences and chronicles an emotional journey culminating in self-discovery.

“The listener is following a woman who is looking for love, who finds love, is in that infatuation phase, then begins to question what the hell is going on and then comes to the realization that this isn’t the fairytale that she thought it would be,” she said.

The album finishes on a note of independence, which Williamson highlighted.

“I end with ‘One Note Samba’ and when it talks about love, it’s more like self-love,” she said.

Williamson sees Fitzgerald as a personal role model.

“She was a very strong woman in a time when women weren’t necessarily seen as leaders,” she said. “I like that strength — going ahead and grabbing what was hers and not being afraid to shine.”  

Williamson, although insistent about avoiding imitation of Fitzgerald musically, exudes a similar confidence, independence and tenacity that she admires in her idol, who shaped Williamson’s musical experience from a young age.

“My father was an avid jazz listener,” Williamson said. “Early in my life, he introduced me to jazz music. That was a bonding experience for us — those were our special moments. He would be happy listening to it so I would be happy listening to it with him.”

She specifically recalls one of her first encounters with Fitzgerald as a popular icon in a 1972 commercial for Memorex cassette tapes, which featured Fitzgerald singing a note so high it broke a wine glass. This left an impression on Williamson’s young mind.

“I know she didn’t really break the wine glass but it would break and I thought that was really cool,” Williamson admitted.

Parallel to her album’s storyline, Williamson found herself drawn back to jazz at the University of Tennessee through a crush.

“I liked a guy in the jazz program, so I started hanging out with the jazz guys,”  she said. “It started out as an infatuation with a person and as I continued to hang with them, and as I listened to the guys talk about the history of the music, really analyzing different things, it became about something much bigger.”

Originally trained as a classical instrumentalist, jazz singing — and the improvisation that goes into it — was out of Williamson’s comfort zone. But with time and experience, she feels like she has grown as an artist.

“With jazz you need to live a little bit … You need to live a lot to truly interpret the lyrics correctly,” she said.

Williamson, who has taught jazz vocals at various institutions around Boston, from local community colleges to Tufts and the Berklee College of Music in addition to private lessons, described how teaching has been an important part of her life and career as a musician.

“I teach to keep jazz alive,” she said. “The fact that this particular genre stayed after its heyday says something powerful about its impact.”

“I become a better musician the more I teach,” Williamson said. “As I’m able to put words on my feelings on how to interpret something, then my interpretation becomes deeper.”

Williamson hopes her interpretations will be meaningful for the those who attend the show on Sunday and the Tufts community at large.

“I want it to be an escape,” she said. “College students work so hard and are thinking about so many things at once. I don’t know how they get up and walk around,” she added with a laugh.

Granoff Music Center Manager Jeffrey Rawitsch described the process through which the university chooses who performs for the student body.

“The concert that Patrice is a part of our performance faculty series,” Rawitsch said. “We can take somewhere between ten and twelve [faculty members] per year and we try not to have the same faculty performing two years in a row.”

According to Coordinator of Music Public Relations, Anna Griffis, when choosing acts, the department is intent on offering variety.

“Presenting a diversity of music, of musicians, and also highlighting the diversity within the department itself is a priority,” Griffis said.

Rawitsch added that the faculty committee that chooses from proposals that their colleagues submit are also looking to exhibit a variation of different musical configurations. “We had a solo vocalist and pianist do performances already,” he said.  “Patrice, I believe, is the only jazz performer who submitted a proposal this year.”  

The department hopes that Williamson’s performance will be able to draw additional attention due to the notoriety of Fitzgerald as an icon.

“She is such a huge staple in the jazz world. Everybody recognizes her voice, everybody recognizes her style,” Griffis said. “Her style has become so iconic that I certainly imagine it reaches across many communities.”  

“There’s the name recognition of Ella Fitzgerald that anybody who has been exposed to any kind of music would think ‘Okay I know that name. I’m interested in this concert.’” she added.

Both Griffis and Rawitsch share the enthusiasm of the department with regards to Williamson’s upcoming performance.

“Patrice puts on an incredible show,” Rawitsch said. “Whether you love jazz through and through or you just know a couple songs — it will be a great concert.”

“Ella and Me” will be performed at Distler Hall this Sunday, Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. The performance is free, and no tickets are required.