Saturday night, in the middle of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” singer Marva Hicks turned to thank the orchestra.
“The swingin’ Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra!” she called out. And the big crowd exploded into applause.
Because the BPO really was swinging.
In that instant, it had a great groove going, the brass growling, the basses laying down the beat. This concert, titled “Ella, Louis and All that Jazz,” marked the jazziest the orchestra had ever sounded, to my recollection.
The orchestra has sounded mighty jazzy in the past, but something Saturday put things over the top. We had the right people aiding the orchestra – pianist Lisa Hasselback and bassist Paul Zapalowski, to name just two. On the podium was our new associate conductor, Stefan Sanders. He is a trombone player, and he seems to know a thing or two about jazz.
Credit also goes to Byron Stripling, an inspiring presence.
Stripling was the Louis Armstrong half of the Ella and Louis theme. He plays a great trumpet and while he doesn’t try to duplicate that Armstrong vocal growl, he captures his spirit. His take on “What a Wonderful World” was sweet and affecting, and he also sang a lazy “Basin Street Blues.”
Between songs, Stripling was equally as entertaining. Satchmo had a big mouth and so does he.
He taunted latecomers, saying, “You didn’t miss much. We had Barbra Streisand here, and then we had Diana Ross come out and do something.”
He also started what could be a permanent feud with Syracuse. It started with a story about how he was singing in Syracuse, and a guy in the front row was snoring. That story escalated through the night until it was established that anyone from Syracuse was stupid and not up to the sophistication of Buffalo. “For anyone from Syracuse, that’s a piano,” Stripling said, pointing. “Bet you didn’t ever see something that big that didn’t have ‘John Deere’ written on it.”
The crowd roared. Admit it, we love a fight like that here in Buffalo.
Saturday’s concert was all great fun. Both Stripling and fellow singer Marva Hicks were professional and prepared. There was no stumbling and there were not cheat sheets or teleprompters.
Both singers sang in their own voices, not trying to imitate their famous predecessors. Hicks really didn’t attempt at all to capture the spirit of Ella Fitzgerald. Who could? She just sang Ella’s songs. And while the tall, strapping Stripling could suggest Armstrong’s looks, the svelte Hicks didn’t have much in common physically with Fitzgerald.
Together, though, the two singers presented a fine tribute to that famous musical partnership. Their duet “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” quoted note for note from the famous Ella and Louis recording. Hicks had Ella’s improvisations down, and Stripling repeated the lines Armstrong had ad-libbed. A set of songs from “Porgy and Bess” were a highlight. Stripling’s no-holds-barred take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” rang out with authority and a dangerous edge. That is a difficult song to do well. And speaking of difficult, hats off to Hicks for her performance of “My Man’s Gone Now.” That lament is a real challenge, and I was not sure she was up to it. She was. It was heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Charming moments abounded. In “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” it was fun to hear the BPO singing the lines, “Was it red?” “Was it green?” to which Hicks would respond, “No, no, no, no.” Stripling and the BPO teamed up beautifully for a bubbly “Tiger Rag.” “Sweet Georgia Brown” was good and gritty. And Hicks gave a loving performance of Cole Porter’s cool, sexy “Just One of Those Things,” complete with verse. (The program mistakenly credited Irving Berlin with that song. Who else but Cole Porter could have written it? Irving Berlin had a different genius.)
“Love Is Here To Stay” epitomized the Ella/Louis elegance. You couldn’t avoid a touch of nostalgia. Stripling acknowledged that in one of his many asides.
“There were all these pretty words,” he said, “and they weren’t vulgar.”