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Dennis Rowland Benefit Concert at the Herberger Theater Center

Patricia Myers By
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Dennis Rowland Benefit Concert
Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ
November 6, 2013

Monica Mancini headlined a troupe of national and local musicians to perform a benefit concert for former Count Basie Orchestra vocalist Dennis Rowland, raising funds for his stroke rehabilitation and ongoing health care. Nine singers and a dozen instrumentalists delivered a wide repertoire that reflected Rowland's 40-year musical career, from singing jazz with the Count Basie Orchestra (1977-84) to blues, soul and Motown styles.

The two-hour event featured Mancini delivering a selection of Oscar-winning hits written by her prolific father, Henry Mancini. She opened with "The Shadow of Your Smile," backed by Los Angeles musicians Shelly Berg on piano and Chuck Berghofer on bass. On drums was the singer's husband, Gregg Field, who co-produced the concert with Greg Warner, Rowland's longtime drummer and music director.

Mancini chose to perform "Charade" as a bright samba, accented by the searing sounds of Phoenix trumpeter Jesse McGuire. Then, commenting that Rowland's smile "always lights up a room," Mancini sang "Smile" in resonant low tones that evinced a musical prayer. Her set closed with two more from the memorable Mancini book, "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "Moon River," proving she's a sensitive singer who never over-embellishes, always respectful of the sanctity of great melodies and lyrics.

Berg probably astonished listeners new to his joyous style of playing and energetic movements. Boundless energy propelled his flying fingers as he often rose from the piano bench to deliver his trademark in-the-pocket swing. Berghofer was the perfect match, delivering a balanced combination of walking bass lines and rich-toned solos against Field's skilled invention and solid foundation.

The second half of the concert featured honoree Rowland sauntering into the spotlight to perform "All Blues." Since his near- fatal cerebral hemorrhage in December 2012, Rowland has been unable to remember and sing lyrics during intense daily physical and music rehabilitation sessions. When he began singing the words, the audience went wild in celebration of this significant benchmark. With Berg, Berghofer and Field in support, Rowland continued to explore the chart by scatting and emitting horn sounds, prompting a standing ovation by the 600+ listeners. Rowland then brought all the participating musicians onstage for round-robin rendition of "Stand by Me" to close the evening.

A variety of Phoenix-based talent performed the earlier part of the concert, including several who have toured widely in recent years. Vocalist Khani Cole, a slender powerhouse of a performer, opened the concert, deploying her amazing range and power on "Don't Leave Me" and "Embraceable You," boosted by the soaring notes of soprano saxophonist Marion Meadows, ably backed by pianist Dave Baradic with Mike King on bass and Warner on drums.

Phoenix vocalist Diana Lee, who has toured as a backup singer with Sister Sledge, is known for her musical versatility and vocal chords of steel. She wowed the crowd with the Jimi Hendrix hit "Little Wing" that featured the added power of inventive guitarist Donnie Dean. Surprised screams came after Lee reached into her blouse for a tiny harmonica that she played with the confidence of a New Orleans street musician.

Then it was Motown time in tribute to Rowland's native city of Detroit and his many memorable doo-wop concerts. The quartet harmony of Cordell Conway, Mel Bridges, Tommy Holloway and Michael Reed was perfect for "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "My Girl." The rhythm section was solid, Chris Gough on piano, Mike King on bass and Warner on percussion that included drum box.

Trumpeter McGuire, widely heard and seen playing the National Anthem at NBA games and touring with both Wynton Marsalis and Tower of Power, came onstage to deliver "Body and Soul" with his trademark sweet heat, graceful phrasing and improbably long whole notes via circular breathing.

Francine Reed, a top Arizona entertainer for 20 years before relocating to Atlanta, applied her big voice and equally large personality into "I'm a Handful," and then her signature song "Wild Women Don't Get the Blues." Between those songs, she shared her time slot with her sister, Margo Reed, who delivered her own trademark medley, singing a cappella renditions of "If" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Each won standing ovations.

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