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BPO, Payne heat up Duke's rich repertoire

A noisy, colorful warm-up is going on at Kleinhans Music Hall this weekend for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra's next Naxos project, a disc of the music of Duke Ellington.

It has a singer along for the ride. Freda Payne, the sultry R&B vocalist who had the early 1970s hit "Band of Gold," is pitching in with a vibrant handful of the kind of songs only the Duke could write.

Friday morning's concert, which concludes this season's Coffee Concert series, could get a bit disorienting. If there is such a thing as after-hours music, surely this is it. In recognition of that fact, Payne wore a skin-tight silver gown and BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, conducting, wore a sparkly black jacket.

The concert began with a splash. Falletta did not even have to give a downbeat. Hardly had she ascended the podium when there was a burst of pounding drums. She went with it, swaying, grooving.

That was the start of the first piece, "Ellington Portrait," by Jeff Tyzik. Tyzik, who has visited Kleinhans before, is quite the jazzman, and this is quite the piece. It has primal, insistent renditions of six Ellington classics, from "Caravan" to "Prelude to a Kiss."

A few extra musicians added to the mix, including Michael T. Jones on piano, giving us that plink-plunk Ellington sound. But the BPO players threw themselves into this highly enjoyable stuff. Principal trumpet player Alex Jokipii turned out great growls throughout the concert. John Fullam, on principal clarinet, went to town, too.

Looking around the balcony, I saw people boogying in their seats. You absolutely could not help it. What infectious music this is, and the BPO can dish it out.

Payne, stunning in her silver gown, got a good round of applause. Even in her 60s, she projects a girlish charm. Ellington must have seen something in her, because when she was 17, she sang with his band for two nights and he asked her to join. (Her mother said no.)

She has a good range and good articulation -- the result, no doubt, of extensive theater experience, in shows like "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Jelly's Last Jam." Her style is full of swoops and swirls. I imagine she takes her cue from Sarah Vaughan.

At times, Payne was not powerful enough for this music ande was drowned out by the crashing cascades of sound from the band -- I mean the orchestra. Her pitch was not always on and once, she came in at the wrong place. Maybe she is not a morning person.

She likes to improvise, and it's a delight to hear her swoop up, suddenly, to grab a high note. I do wish she had not worked so hard to obscure the exquisite melody of "In a Sentimental Mood." I wanted to tell her, whatever you or I come up with, it's not going to top what Ellington did.

Payne does approach the songs with a good spirit, and "I'm Beginning to See the Light," a song where it's more OK to take liberties, bopped along cheerily. She also sang "Lush Life" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."

The BPO took the spotlight again with Ellington's ballet/tone poem "The Three Black Kings" (they're Balthazar, Solomon and Martin Luther King) and a roiling concoction called "Harlem."

I have wondered why Ellington, a great melodist, gave us, in his more "serious" works, so little to grab onto. This music is largely abstract. Still, it gives the BPO plenty of chance to shake, rattle and roll. Timpani and percussion can shine. Balthazar is evoked by camel-walk drum patterns, picked up by one instrument, then another.

"Harlem" even gave us a drum solo. People broke with Philharmonic convention and applauded, as if we were in a jazz club. It was fun. And it was a thrill to hear this music going full throttle, which it was most of the time.

The concert ended with "Take the 'A' Train." The arrangement closely followed the classic Ellington recording -- with the addition of a terrific, swinging violin solo, courtesy of Amy Licata.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra    

"The Duke Ellington Festival" with guest vocalist Freda Payne and BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta. Part of the Pops Series. Friday morning and at 8 p.m. today in Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle.

Tickets are $25-$72. Call 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.