We’ve got a live one in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s new pops conductor, John Morris Russell. And we’ve got another live one in Dee Daniels, the jazz singer he brought with him for “First Ladies of Swing.”
The result was one bombastic Saturday evening.
They made a great pair, the 6-foot-tall singer, clad head to toe in glittery silver, and the bespectacled maestro. And we have them to thank for some of the funniest moments ever on the stage of Kleinhans Music Hall.
One of those moments came when they danced together. Russell knows how to use his nerdy looks to his advantage, and as he shimmied uninhibitedly, the good-sized audience roared. Daniels, towering over him, laughed too.
Russell began the evening by turning and yelling: “Happy New Year, Buffalo!” At the great Holiday Pops concert he conducted here a few weeks ago, I remember thinking that with his pent-up energy, he reminded me of one of those jack-in-the-box toys that springs out and startles you. “First Ladies of Swing” reinforced that impression.
Daniels, too, has no boundaries. Her voice swoops and sails from whistly, all-but-inaudible high notes to down-in-the-alley lows. Along the way, getting from one to the other, she whoops and wails.
She gave the best performance I think I will ever hear of Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” It was so extravagantly slow that it must have been a real challenge for her trio, anchored by the fine pianist Michael T. Jones. Lines like “I end up like I start out, just crying my eyes out,” were harrowing. This woman puts her heart into her voice.
Another highlight – or should we say lowlight – was the gutbucket Bessie Smith classic “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle Of Beer).” Daniels had an entertaining shtick in which she sings an intro mimicking a woman with a delicate voice, and then slams into the song as her real self. It kills you.
“God Bless the Child,” in tribute to Billie Holiday, was rich and robust. Daniels played piano herself for that one, against a curtain of strings. “Mack the Knife” saw the singer sashaying slowly from one end of the stage to the other.
The Philharmonic played eloquently throughout. The loveliest song, “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” from “Show Boat,” was especially moving, with its lovely, wistful arrangement.
In more boisterous numbers, the orchestra sometimes drowned Daniels out, or at least gave her a run for her money. It didn’t help in this department that some of the arrangements seemed overengineered. A number of them were too busy, too dense, or too adventurous in their harmonies. “Summertime,” “It’s All Right With Me” and “Send In The Clowns,” to name just a few songs, would have been more effective had they been simpler.
Asking for audience participation threatens to slow a show down, but Daniels and Russell were both funny and entertaining enough to carry it off. “A Tisket, A Tasket” grew raucous and hilarious, as Russell led the audience in shouting: “Was it red?” “Was it green?” the way the band does on the old Ella Fitzgerald record.
Daniels ended the concert by giving us some gospel singing, like she learned growing up in church. The swooping, swirling gospel intro made way for the old chestnut “Bill Bailey.”
I think everyone went out to their cars dancing and snapping their fingers.