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The BPO tackles ‘Benny and Me’ and all that jazz

The great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman needs no introduction. And so he got none Friday morning at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Instead the orchestra just slammed into the first number, “Bugle Call Rag.”

“Slammed” is right. You could not ask for a concert with more energy than “Benny and Me,” the no-holds-barred tribute to Benny Goodman featuring the BPO’s own Sal Andolina. “Bugle Call Rag” went at breakneck speed, setting the tone for what would follow.

Musicians jammed the stage. In addition to the orchestra, Andolina had called into play a number of our town’s top jazz musicians. The brass sparkled and the percussion popped. Half the time you didn’t know where to look. God knows how Andolina and Associate Conductor Stefan Sanders coordinated this thing so flawlessly, but they did. The concert flew.

Andolina proved a suave master of ceremonies. He knew Benny Goodman personally, but he didn’t push the name dropping. He simply stepped into the master’s shoes. His wry sense of humor kept things light.

His playing, too, was graceful and understated. Up-and-coming jazz musicians, who tend to be too grounded in bop, could learn a lot from hearing the artistry Andolina brings to a tune. He feels the music, and it shows.

This was real old-school jazz.

“Imagine it’s June of 1935,” Andolina told us, introducing Cole Porter’s slinky “You Do Something To Me.” He went on, smoothly, to mention names rarely heard for decades: Mildred Bailey, Paul Whiteman, Teddy Wilson.

The arrangements were vivid and creative. In the old torch song “Mean to Me,” the strings sighed along with eloquent sympathy. I actually laughed out loud in “Flight of the Bumblebee.” You know that arpeggio-like figure that accompanies the buzzing of the bee? The orchestra takes that figure and repeats it, slowly and pompously, against Andolina’s derring-do. You had all kinds of Spike Jones-like sound effects coming from the percussion, and honks from the brass. And in the middle of it all, Andolina did sound like a bee.

Andolina began “Avalon” by wailing Puccini’s “E lucevan le stelle,” the harrowing aria from “Tosca” that was ripped off for the jazz standard. (My dad used to tell me, with satisfaction, about how Puccini sued over the song, and won.) “Memories of You” featured a breathtaking cadenza and lovely poetic touches. “Mission To Moscow” had an exotic Russian feel, like a theme from a James Bond movie.

Singer Colleen Williams sashayed out in the second set, stunning in a strapless ice-blue gown, and sang “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “You Turned the Tables On Me.” Colorful as the concert was, I wished they had brought her out earlier.

As it was, there was so much to enjoy. Even Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” which at first struck an academic note, quickly became irresistible. You get caught up in all its jangle and craziness. “The World is Waiting For the Sunrise,” “Big Noise From Winnetka,” and of course “Sing, Sing, Sing” – it all amounted to a riot of rhythm.

The hep cats kick again at 8 p.m. Saturday in Kleinhans.


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