October 29, 2005
It seems like symphony concerts are the trendy thing to do.
A quick search through some entertainment listings brought
up offerings from Willie Nelson, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Kansas
to name a few. Turn on your local PBS station during a fund-raising
drive and you can’t miss Dennis DeYoung’s symphonic
version of Styx’ greatest hits. Local orchestras are
trying to lure boomers by shaking the perception that their
concerts are genteel, formal events. Most artists use it as
an opportunity to add longevity to their catalog of hits; but
for the ones who are willing to take the risk, it is an opportunity
to cover a wider spectrum of musical turf in front of an audience
that is more open to exploration than the average arena crowd.
Needless to say, Al Jarreau belongs to the second group. See
him at a festival or a summer tour and he delivers the crowd
pleasers with a song or two from left field to spice it up.
See him in the symphony setting and you get to see a multifaceted
artist cut loose.
Jarreau set the mood for the evening when he hit the stage
with some improvisational scatting woven around a prayer of
gratitude that urged the audience to focus on the good things
in their lives and be thankful for what they have, then segued
into a medley of some of his familiar hits. The joyride really
begins when he gets to show what he can do in a program of
songs that includes classical music, show tunes, jazz standards
and some of his most beautifully written originals. His first
step off the beaten path was a medley from “West Side
Story” that begins with the anticipatory energy of “Something’s
Coming” and ends with a lovely interpretation of “Maria.” Later,
he sings a hushed, emotive version of “Bess, You Is My
Woman,” from “Porgy and Bess” leading into “Summertime,” which
he previously recorded. During these two medleys he speaks
of the historical context of these songs and how they touched
the audiences who heard them in their original settings, while
his performances illustrate how relevant and timeless they
still are. A lot of the arrangements were sparse and focused
mostly on a trio of keyboard, bass, and drums with brass and
string embellishments, but “Spain” got the full
orchestral treatment making it even more dynamic and stunning. “Mornin’,” which
has already been given several layers of meaning since its
original incarnation as a pop hit, got an even more uplifting
touch as he improvised on the chorus of Burt Bacharach’s “I
Say A Little Prayer” throughout. “We Got By” sounded
perfectly in place as story and song between the Broadway and
theatrical material. The introspective lyrics he added to Bach’s “Air
on A G String” left the audience hushed and contemplative,
then a rousing standing ovation brought him back to sing “After
All.” That’s how Al Jarreau concerts always work,
from moments of stillness and quiet to dancing in the aisles
and screaming standing ovations. Through all this, he
has so much fun. His conversations with the audience are unpredictable
and completely in the moment. When he shares information about
the songs and their composers it never sounds like a lecture.
Of course he had a blast cutting up with the conductor and
musicians. Given the freedom to “color outside the lines” he
created a vivid and colorful picture. This is one artist who
will never default to running on autopilot, and his audiences
won’t be able to either.
For this adventure Jarreau brought along longtime
collaborator Larry Williams on keyboards, drummer Mark Simmons,
who was featured on Accentuate The Positive, and Chris
Walker, the bass player, backup vocalist and music director
in his touring band. The orchestration was done by Gil Goldstein,
who has worked with everyone from Miles Davis to Pat Metheny
and most recently did the arrangements for Chris Botti’s
chart topping To Love Again. His
gift has always been creating arrangements that add depth and
dimension to the material without making it sound ponderous.
The combination of the core trio and Goldstein’s arrangements
undoubtedly kept the symphony concert experience within the
comfort zone for some of the fans who were experiencing it
for the first time. In this case it was done without compromising
the integrity of the experience in order to make it mass appeal,
which sometimes happens at symphony pops concerts.
Jarreau has been doing concerts with local
and regional orchestras for over a decade in both large and
small markets. He continues to do his regular tours, with a
few of these scattered in between. If he does one within traveling
distance don’t miss it.
It's a chance to experience music with no boundaries and proof
you can kick off your shoes and have fun at a symphony concert!
- Shannon West