From country music to rhythm and blues, Robin McKelle has made an entire career exploring the rich vastness of American music. With Impressions of Ella, McKelle returns to her traditional jazz roots and finds herself right at home.
“There was a part of me that wasn’t writing so much,” says the seasoned vocalist. “I wasn’t singing a lot, and I really missed [performing] live music. When I [started] to think about what I wanted to do for my next project, there was just so much of a feeling over the time of COVID; this feeling of nostalgia and longing for what felt like home. I felt it was the right moment to change gears and get back into that traditional swing and everything that helped me break into my career as an artist.”
To help bring her concept to life, McKelle enlists a brand new trio of venerated jazz players: Kenny Washington on drums, bassist Peter Washington, and NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron on piano. “I wasn’t intimidated to make music with them, but [their] résumés were like, ‘Wow!’ [Am I] going to be good enough? Are we going to connect? The exciting thing was having the opportunity to sing over them as a trio; that was such a huge joy.”
Impressions of Ella finds McKelle a little older and a lot wiser. More than 15 years since her first album, she finally feels ready to tackle the emotional heft behind these jazz standards. “My voice has matured, and I have grown so much as a woman. I felt like I was really at a point in my life where the lyrics resonated with me, and I could sing these stories because I had lived them. It wasn’t like me as a 20-year-old singer [who] really wouldn’t understand or maybe haven’t had the loss of love or true love at that point in my life. And so I felt like at my age now and my maturity, I was ready to return to this music and this repertoire.”
Impressions of Ella features selections from an extensive catalog, including duets with the Oscar Peterson Trio. However, it is far more than a tribute album. McKelle wisely eschews Ella’s scatting and note-bending style in favor of thoughtful arrangements and keen musicianship that revivify these timeless standards.