Mike Costley is an expat now living in California, but he remains oh, so Buffalo.
“Hey, I heard you at the Page One,” someone yelled at him as Costley was performing Sunday at the Buffalo News’ Jazz at the Albright-Knox concert series.
“Didn’t someone burn that joint down?” Costley yelled back, cheerily.
The singer acknowledged family, friends and fellow musicians in the audience. He hawked his CDs shamelessly, saying he needed money for chicken wings. He has an endearing creativity when it comes to song lyrics. And he slipped in a cute alteration to “Lady, Be Good.” Instead of “I’m all alone in this big city,” he sang, “I’m a little singing boy from Buffalo, not New York City.”
And, next time around: “I’m half Sicilian and half Irish from Buffalo, not New York City.”
A big man, Costley made no secret of sweating in the heat. But at the same time, he clearly lives to perform. He sang and sang and sang.
The concert got started a half-hour late, an almost unheard-of screw-up when it comes to this series.
Apparently the sound technicians’ truck broke down. So Costley faced the challenge of winning over a crowd already getting hot and tired.
He didn’t waste much time, easing us into the swing of things with an uptempo “The Way You Look Tonight.”
He is a bear of a singer, is how one sax player friend put it to me. I would agree. The friend added – and sax players know such things – “His lungs are twice the size of anyone else’s.”
Costley can hold notes to beat the band. Even when he has an opportunity to take a breath, he doesn’t always do it.
He is an awe-inspiring scat singer, with flawless pitch.
He can do uncanny imitations of trombone, muted trumpet, even stand-up bass. Sometimes, he makes it tough for the band to keep up.
“I want to sing this just for the hell of it,” he might say. You could sense his sidemen – pianist Bobby Jones, guitarist Chuck Buffamonte, bassist Wayne Moose and drummer Danny Hull – bracing themselves, wondering what they were in for.
Spontaneous choices included “It’s a Wonderful World,” in F, and “The Palm Springs Jump,” an old chestnut that, Costley instructed, went “from G to A to B flat to G to A flat and out.”
He repeated the sequence for those who couldn’t catch it the first time. Those poor musicians. Sometimes, having established the key, Costley would veer into other keys, with only the slightest notice. If you play with him, you really have to watch him.
The musicians held their own, and the afternoon was a success. There was never-ending drama. Costley ripped through “Twisted.”
Thanks to his articulation, you could catch every word, even at top speed. “Green Dolphin Street” and “Doodlin’” paid tribute to Mark Murphy, a mentor of Costley. “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which he dedicated emotionally to family members, might have been better as a ballad. But for better or worse, Costley has energy to burn.
When he does sing ballads, he does them beautifully. Jack Jones’ “I Am a Singer” – a real rarity featured on one of Costley’s CDs – was a highlight. Always engaged with the music, Costley has a wide range and he uses it tirelessly, soaring high and swooping low.
Because the show began late, it ended late. We had lost some of the crowd because of the heat, but the survivors had fun with “Just a Gigolo.” Costley had us all yelling “Gigolo” at him, in homage to Louis Prima and Keely Smith. “I Love Being Here With You” showed his warmth for Buffalo. He held that last note as if he didn’t want to let it go.
The Buffalo News’ Jazz at the Albright-Knox series continues next Sunday with a concert featuring another wonderful singer, Janice Mitchell, and pianist Jim Beishline.