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Lili K on Ella Fitzgerald and Not Being Afraid to Be Weird

The singer performs a tribute to the iconic jazz vocalist this week.

Photo: Bryan Lamb

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: singer Lili K, who performs a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on Wednesday, May 31, at Untitled.

What can you tell me about the show?

It’s a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, who would have had her hundredth birthday last month. We’re focusing on songs that Ella has made famous renditions of. It’s my regular trio performing, which is myself, Cullen Bogan on guitar, and my drummer, Myron Cherry. We do jazz trio nights maybe once a month at Untitled Supper Club.

What got you into Ella?

When I was younger, I mainly listened to gospel, Motown, and R&B. I was always under the impression that that was the only way to be a good singer—like Aretha Franklin, for example. Then my middle school voice teacher told me to listen to Ella. I realized the voice doesn’t have to be this exact way. She uses her voice in such an instrumental way. She’s not afraid to take risks.

Any particular Ella standards you’re looking forward to singing?

I’m really excited to perform “Miss Otis Regrets” which is probably my favorite Ella song. It’s just a simple ballad, but it’s this really heartbreaking tale and I’ve never performed it.

I’ve also been transcribing a few of her scat solos. For example, “Blue Skies” has a long scat solo. I’ll be doing an even mix of transcribed solos and improvising on the spot, because a huge part of jazz is soloing and scatting.

What’s it like transcribing those scat solos?

I started doing it when I was in high school and getting really into jazz. My vocal teacher suggested I study her solos. It’s super hard because she’s a genius and does the weirdest stuff with her voice. It’s helped me to become a better improviser. She’s known not only for her voice but also for the weird sounds that she makes. She’s not afraid to be weird.

Is that a common issue with vocalists—feeling afraid to sound weird?

I think in our minds, we want to sound pretty. But performance is so much more than that. It’s about storytelling and conveying emotion. I think for her time it was definitely revolutionary what she did. When she performed “Mack the Knife” in Berlin, she forgot all the words and made a big joke of it. Now it’s her most famous rendition of it.

Beyond the show Wednesday, what’s next for you?

We have an album coming out later this year. It’s called Planet of Flowers. It’s definitely a mix of jazz and soul and funk and rock. It’s all over the genre spectrum.

Any Ella tunes?

No, it’s all original music. But we’re thinking about doing a jazz project in the future, so we’ll see what happens.

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