January 12, 2018

Singer Freda Payne remembers the day in June 1996 that legendary jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald died.

“I was heartsick,” Payne said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “And I said, ‘You know what? I want to play Ella on stage.'”

A few years later, the “Band of Gold” singer did just that. The Fitzgerald tribute has been part of Payne’s performance repertoire ever since. She’ll channel the First Lady of Jazz again Jan. 14, the first of the three shows that make up Centenary State Company‘s January Thaw Music Festival at Lackland Performing Arts Center.

“I pay homage while still being Freda,” said Payne, who grew up listening to Fitzgerald songs like “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “Mr. Paganini.” “Ella showed me how to articulate your lyrics and how to use your voice to project for a pure, quality sound. … She was just enchanting. So beautiful.”

The Festival is an annual event that features three performances on three different weekends. Jazz saxophonist Danny Bacher brings his show “Swing that MSaxophonist Danny Bacher brings his salute to Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Louis Jordan to Centenary Stage Company's annual January Thaw Musical Festival.usic! A Jazz Tribute to the Three Louis … Armstrong, Prima and Jordan” to the stage Jan. 21. The final show, by Brazilian bluegrass group Matuto, is on Jan. 27. In Brazil, the word “matuto” is a slang term meaning “country boy.”

Bacher described “Swing That Music! A Jazz Tribute to the Three Louis” as “a little bit of history and a lot of entertainment.” (The name in the title is pronounced “Louies.”)

One of the biggest challenges for Bacher was winnowing down each performers’ catalogue for a 12-song performance. His choices include each man’s hits – including “I Wanna Be Like You,” “If It’s Love You Want,” and “Kiss to Build a Dream On.”

“I wanted to take a look at their careers and do some tunes everybody would know, but with a contemporary twist. Not modern in the sense of modern jazz, but in the sense of new, fresh takes and arrangements,” Bacher said.

Wrapping up Thaw Festival is Matuto, a band that mixes multiple musical styles, including the explosive beat and complex rhythms of traditional Brazilian music, blues, bluegrass, jazz and songs from the American South. The songs are in Portuguese and English.

Rob Curto, one of the band’s founders and its accordion player, said the combination makes for a “high energy show that’s a lot of fun.” The band has toured the world as part of a U.S. State Department program that brings American musicians overseas.

After finding success and accepteance in Thailand and the Far East, Azerbajian and former Soviet republics, and Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait and Oman, Curto is confident the band will win over New Jersey listeners.

“Our music appeals to everyone,” he said. “It has a great way of connecting people.”