Ella Meets Mel
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Ella Meets Mel

Chicago, IL | Established. Jan 01, 2015 | AFM

Chicago, IL | AFM
Established on Jan, 2015
Duo Jazz Cabaret


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Ellen Winters

Milwaukee jazz singer Ellen Winters modeled her style after some of the greats, including Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney, both of whom she’s covered in popular tribute programs. A frequent Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award nominee, Winters also teaches a variety of workshops for aspiring jazz and musical theater singers. (Evan Rytlewski)

Carlos Adames
Ryan Janscha
Steve Peplin - Shepherd Express

Ellen Winters referenced Fitzgerald’s acuity at scat singing — the art of improvising wordless passages as a trumpet or a saxophone might — in “Perdido.” Winter's bell-like clarity of tone, distinct from Fitzgerald’s, but appealing in its own right. --Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune - Chicago Tribune

October 3, 2015

If singers Johnny Rodgers and Ellen Winters were paid by the note for their "Ella Meets Mel" concert, they'd be zillionaires.

Yes, there's a tidal wave of scat singing in the show, as one would expect of a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme, two of the greatest vocal-jazz improvisers of the 20th century. When Fitzgerald and Torme sang — occasionally together — they proved that the human voice can match or exceed technical feats typically associated with musical instruments.

So it takes a certain degree of audacity for anyone to build an entire evening on the work of these two legends, for no female vocalist has yet approached Fitzgerald's mercurial virtuosity nor has any male singer matched Torme's luscious, supple way with a phrase.

But despite the title of the production, which opened Friday night at Davenport's, "Ella Meets Mel" isn't so much an evocation of the masters' work as a heartfelt response to it. Neither Rodgers nor Winters, after all, is foolhardy enough to try to mimic the technical and artistic achievements of their musical idols. Instead, Rodgers and Winters showed their abiding affection and admiration for Fitzgerald and Torme, in both song and patter.

As it happened, Winters more closely suggested the work of Fitzgerald than Rodgers did of Torme, simply because of the nature of their voices. Winters' vocal range and tone colors in some instances recalled Fitzgerald's singing, while Rodgers produced a more muscular, throaty sound than anything in Torme's musical vocabulary.

So when Winters launched into "You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)," the dusky quality of her opening tones and the swooping phrasings that followed spoke unmistakably of how much Fitzgerald has influenced her singing. Much more striking, though, was the nature of the interpretation itself, Winters finessing scat passages with apparent ease and bringing palpable drama to the big finale, when she cut the tempo in half.

Rodgers, on the other hand, sounded thoroughly like Rodgers, big and brassy in "Give Me the Simple Life," searing in expression in Torme's "Born to Be Blue." That tune represented a high point for Rodgers, the singer sustaining a slow but inexorable climax that attested to the vocal control and interpretive depth of his best work.

Of course, the performers offered several duet passages, a complex enterprise considering the cascades of notes involved. Notwithstanding a few minor missed cues in a show receiving its premiere, they finessed the proceedings quite well, with nimble accompaniment from pianist Sam Steffke, bassist Jim Cox and drummer Phil Gratteau. The tours de force arrived in a medley of tunes Fitzgerald and Torme had sung on TV on "The Garry Moore Show" and in a freewheeling re-creation of the indelible moment when the two riffed freely on the Grammy Awards in 1976, each an occasion for high-flying vocal pyrotechnics.

One of the chief joys of this evening, however, had nothing to do with Fitzgerald or Torme but focused instead on Rodgers. The man's versatility is well-known, and when he works the front room at Davenport's and other spots in Chicago, listeners hear his finesse in swing, Broadway, pop, country and other genres. As singer and pianist, Rodgers seems equipped to handle anything that's thrown at him.

But in "Ella Meets Mel" we get to hear him dig deeply into jazz facets of his musical persona, and that's a feast. His buoyant scat singing in a transcription of Torme's recording of "Lullaby of Birdland" reaffirmed Rodgers' affinity for this idiom; the singer's expression of childlike wonder in "Dat Dere," with lyrics famously written by Chicagoan Oscar Brown Jr., showed Rodgers' depth of characterization.

Winters, who's introducing herself to Chicago audiences with this show, acquitted herself handsomely in extremely challenging repertoire, though a little more rhythmic drive (not speed but swing) would make her still more effective.

Ultimately, though, "Ella Meets Mel" has just begun its life, with Rodgers and Winters clearly equipped to expand and polish this show. As they do, perhaps a new wave of listeners will come to discover the joys of Fitzgerald and Torme, two singular artists whose influence still reverberates.

Howard Reich is a Chicago Tribune critic.


Twitter @howardreich - Howard Reich - Chicago Tribune

He plays piano better than most singers. He sings better than most pianists. And he writes songs better than most singer-pianists.

The one-man band known as Johnny Rodgers has toured the world with Liza Minnelli and also as a headliner in his own right, basing himself in New York as of 2000 and in Nashville from 2012-13.

But he has come home to the room where he launched his career in the 1990s, Davenport's, with an open-ended weekend engagement in the cabaret's front room. There are precious few singer-pianists in Chicago — or anywhere, really — who perform as wide a repertoire as compellingly as Rodgers.

Last Saturday night, the audience turnout was modest at first, prompting Rodgers to quip, "If the room were smaller, we'd be packed." But the place filled up as the evening proceeded, Rodgers reminding Chicagoans of what they missed when he moved away.

For starters, there's the distinctive sound of his voice, a supple, lyric instrument that's imploring in high notes, warmly cushioned in the middle and darkly resonant down low. Rodgers knows how to swing a phrase in jazz repertoire, growl a line in blues, belt a note in musical-theater hits and credibly finesse his way around a pop tune.

As pianist, he tends to dig deeply into the keys, like a man who has something important to say, but his approach takes a different turn with each genre. In jazz, that means throwing off fast-moving lines that buoy from one offbeat to the next. In pop, it means riding the rolling rhythms of music by Elton John and others. And in vintage rock 'n' roll, he hammers the keys while making music, not noise.

Rodgers opened his second set Saturday exploring jazz-swing traditions, as if to say that this is the foundation of his music. If he hadn't sung a note in Ellington's "I'm Just A Lucky So and So," his jazz-tinged pianism would have been engaging enough, Rodgers articulating swing rhythm with persuasive drive. His vocals deepened the performance, Rodgers' delivery as colloquial as speech yet charismatically sung.

The exuberant phrases he sang in "Cheek to Cheek," the flying-high euphoria he expressed in "I've Got the World on a String" and the worldly wise attitude he expressed in "Do Nothing Till You Hear for Me" established his credentials in jazz-swing vernacular. But that was the curtain-raiser for repertoire yet to come.

And then there were Rodgers' own songs, which deserve much more prominence in his show than he gave them on this occasion. "Sweet Georgia Smile" is a heartbreaker about lifelong love — its joys and perils — that lingers in memory. One of these days, the world is going to discover the bittersweet allure of this piece. "The Best of You in Me" may not be quite so deep, but its message — on what we owe our parents — strikes universal chords.

Because Rodgers toils so hard to please an audience, taking practically all requests, his show soft-pedals his own songwriting. Or at least it did on this night. But listeners need to hear more of this work, an observation that cannot be made of many cabaret singer-pianists.

Even though Rodgers plays most of his show solo, he understands that at Davenport's he's not the only talented soul in the room — waiters and barkeeps here tend to be as adept at delivering a song as serving a drink. On this evening, Julia Merchant duetted poetically with Rodgers; Dan Michel sang powerfully from Maltby and Shire's "Starting Here, Starting Now"; and an impromptu group sang backup in music of Randy Newman, Ray Charles and whatnot.

Only a performer as polished as Rodgers could have held it all together, segueing from ambitious solos to high-toned singalongs to state-of-the-art songwriting as if it all had been planned. Which, of course, it hadn't.

Chicagoans are lucky to have Rodgers back in town. Enjoy him for as long as he's here.

With the exception of this Saturday, Johnny Rodgers plays at 7 p.m. Saturdays and 7:30 p.m. Sundays at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; no cover or minimum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.


Twitter @howardreich - Chicago Tribune

By: Community Contributor Dave Gallagher

Award-winning vocalists Johnny Rodgers and Ellen Winters pay tribute to two of the greatest jazz singers of all time: Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald. In this critically acclaimed concert that Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich said of the opening night "if singers Johnny Rodgers and Ellen Winters were paid by the note for their "Ella Meets Mel" concert, they'd be zillionaires. Sparks fly when Ella meets Mel"

Due to the great demand and raves by the Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich, a second show has now been added at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Avenue, Skokie, on Wednesday, November 18th at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 and are available at SkokieTheatre.org or by phone at 847-677-7761.

From ballads to racing scat to rare duets, this show is a must see! The Nov 15 show sold out within 48 hours of its debut at Davenports. Don't miss your chance to experience these amazing performers. Rodgers, who has toured the world with Liza Minnelli and his own Johnny Rodgers Band, even performed onstage with the Velvet Fog" Mel Torme himself while in school. And Ellen Winters channels Ella while maintaining her own individual vocal styling.

In addition to co-starring on the Tony Award-winning, Grammy-nominated PBS special Liza At The Palace, Rodgers has performed his own concerts throughout the country including Jazz at Lincoln Center. With his band he has toured the globe as an official music ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He has won numerous accolades including a Billboard and ASCAP songwriting awards and the MAC and Bistro Awards. Ellen Winters has won high praise as a jazz vocalist including numerous Best Jazz Artist distinctions and has appeared on Fox 6 TV. Johnny Rodgers and Ellen Winters individual recordings are available on Amazon.com and iTunes. You can visit EllenWinters.com and JohnnyRodgers.com for further information.

This item was posted by a community contributor. To read more about community contributors, click here. - Deerfield Review

If you've heard jazz vocalist Ellen Winters sing, you know she brims with enthusiasm and charm. Winters is talented enough to have performed at the Montreux and North Sea jazz festivals while still in college. Her original cabaret show, "Harmony," was given rave reviews when it debuted in NYC a couple of years ago. Perhaps you caught her with Swing Nouveau at one of their frequent gigs in town. Or maybe it was with the Paul Spencer Band at Caroline's Jazz Club. Regardless of the venue, you know Winters brings a fresh interpretation to jazz standards each time she sings. (Jim Adashek) - The Shepherd Express

MAY 12, 2010

“Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” isn’t just the title of the easygoing standard by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer that describes the vagabond life of a happy-go-lucky drifter. It could be the theme song of Johnny Rodgers, a bandleader, singer-songwriter, pianist and traditional jazzman, who suggests the tow-headed boy next door striding down a country road as he travels from one style to another.

At the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, where he and his band began a three-week engagement on Tuesday evening, Mr. Rodgers, who was brought up in Miami, dropped his imaginary hat on many posts. The majority were in the mythical “Southland” celebrated in “The Birth of the Blues,” a song he and his musicians took at a brisk pace and pointedly resisted turning into an anthem.

A nostalgic Southern ambiance was the defining quality of Mr. Rodgers’s music at Tuesday’s opening-night show. He is a steady pop-jazz crooner whose voice acquires more personality and confidence the more forcefully he sings. “It Should’ve Been Me” evoked early Ray Charles, and a breezy “Jailhouse Rock” paid tribute to the King himself.

The rambunctiously funny “Huggin’ and Chalkin’ ” a song associated with Hoagy Carmichael, celebrated the charms of a 303-pound “baby blimp” named Rosabelle Magee, whose suitors carry pieces of chalk to mark their places as they circle around her from opposite directions and risk colliding.

Here Mr. Rodgers and his musicians conjured a hazy realm of folk-blues-pop-country-jazz innocence where mountain dew sparkles on a haystack as farm boys in overalls cavort with girls in gingham dresses, and the strains from a juke joint down the road drift across a field. If it wasn’t “authentic” in any scholarly sense, it made for an engaging fantasy concocted by a grown-up Andy Hardy.

Mr. Rodgers and his band members even have roustabout nicknames: he is “Poppy Sunshine,” the bassist Brian Glassman “Mud Man,” the drummer Danny Mallon “Mad Dog,” and the guitarist Joe Ravo, who on one number made his instrument sound like a banjo, “Cotton Eye Joe.”

There is another side to Mr. Rodgers, the canny pop craftsman, which came through in his heartfelt ballads. ““The Best of You in Me” (written with Richard Barone) echoes the Celine Dion hit “Because You Loved Me,” and “Sweet Georgia Smile,” is an appealing honeysuckle lullaby of eternal devotion.

So who, finally, is this talented chameleon? If you fused elements of Billy Joel, Peter Allen and Johnny Mercer, a silhouette begins to emerge.

Johnny Rodgers appears through May 29 at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, Manhattan, (212) 419-9331, algonquinhotel.com. - New York Times


Still working on that hot first release.



Award-winning singers Johnny Rodgers and Ellen Winters are pooling their talents to create this magical tribute to their heroes: Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald.  In "Ella Meets Mel," the two create night of some of Torme's and Fitzgerald's greatest hits, from little known duets to racing scat to famous solos.  

This sell-out show was a hit in Chicago and will continue to please crowds across the country.  With Johnny's consummate skills as a Broadway entertainer, pianist and music director for Liza Minnelli, songwriter and Music Ambassador for the United States; he captivates audiences worldwide.  Ellen's passion for Jazz as a performer and teacher has taken her across the country as both a singer and a clinician.  Her award-winning vocals are reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald while still remaining original and authentic.  

Putting these two dynamic performers together creates "vocal fireworks," according to Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune.  

Band Members