"88 Keys, a Big Band, and a Voice"
Celebrating 30 years of Peter Nero with the Philly Pops
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
April 24, 2009
On this night, one of five performances of the same concert event, conductor-pianist Peter Nero welcomed Diane Schuur to the stage as "the most outstanding jazz vocalist of our time." While there may be other candidates for the top spot in this category, and while such ratings are problematic to begin with, Ms. Schuur surely is among the very best jazz vocalists, and she exemplifies if not redefines the "diva" category with her warm, often humorous, and relaxed interactions with the audience and the musicians. Her mere presence is enough to make for a memorable evening, and on this occasion she delivered a terrific set with the backing of the Philly Pops orchestra, a superb ensemble featuring a number of the best local jazz, classical, and theater musicians supplemented for this concert with a "big band" contingent of rhythm sidemen plus Mr. Nero's outlandishly fine piano playing and a full saxophone section. Schuur proved herself worthy of such orchestral backing, filling the large Verizon Hall venue with her wide-ranging voice, which encompasses jazz, pops, and country and western flavors within its large scope.
The concert began with several orchestral numbers emphasizing the big band sound, beginning with Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside," and proceeding to the Bobby Darin hits "Beyond the Sea," and "Mack the Knife," "September" by Earth, Wind, and Fire, Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" and "For Once in My Life," Buddy Rich's arrangement of "Love for Sale," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," Basie's "Magic Flea," the ever-popular "Fly Me to the Moon," and Nero's "Variations on 'I Got Rhythm." The orchestra hovered precariously between "crowd pleasers" and straight-ahead jazz. Basie's and Rich's classics fared well with a full orchestra surrounding the big band sound. Several fine jazz trumpet and saxophone improvisations highlighted these numbers. The orchestra has some excellent jazz players, among those known to this reviewer being Ron Kerber on alto sax and Andrew Neu
on tenor sax. Brian Pastor
, who heads up his own big band, led a superb trombone section. Compliments are also due several other jazz players whom the reviewer was unable to identify. "In the Mood" was disappointing, taken at too fast a tempo, the contrast exposing the beauty of the original Glenn Miller recording. "Variations on 'I Got Rhythm,'" though recognizable as the George Gershwin staple, was sheer kitsch, but Mr. Nero's piano playing throughout was superb.
Diane Schuur (aka "Deedles") came on for the remainder of the concert. Her singing and the orchestral arrangements she used lifted the quality of the music up a sizable notch. She began with the delightful "Bob White" by Johnny Mercer, proceeding to Gershwin's "The Man I Love," and then to "You Can Have It," from her 1987 CD with the Basie Band, with Kerber trading fours amicably with the singer. Following the intermission, Schuur, who was originally discovered in the late 1970's by Stan Getz at the Monterey Jazz Festival, performed numbers from her own recordings, including "I Just Found Out About Love" from the Basie album, Willie Nelson's "Crazy," Gershwin's "But Not for Me" with Nero and the rhythm section doing some terrific accompaniment, Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay" with Jeff Smith on piano, Jimmy Van Heusen's "I Thought About You," "Louisiana Sunday Afternoon" with a fine solo by Andrew Neu, and concluding with two works in the "spiritual" category: "Climbing Higher Mountains" and "Amazing Grace."
Diane Schuur is one of those rare singers, like Sinatra and Judy Garland, who is both a superb singer and a wonderful entertainer. If she hasn't done so already, she ought to perform, as did the aforementioned pair, at the London Palladium. Her wry sense of humor and her stage presence are memorable, and I was moved by her use of a Braille music chart at one point, something I have never seen before (Schuur is blind.) And when she said to the audience at the end, "I love you," they could believe her sincerity. This reviewer spoke briefly with her once when she did a club date at Zanzibar Blue, and was taken by her simplicity and genuineness. She is, as they say, "the real thing."
The great Peter Nero
is, of course, known for his piano playing, covering a range from classical concert repertoire to straight-ahead jazz. Ray Charles once compared him to Art Tatum, and that is only the beginning of what he can do on the piano. His fingers stretch as far as Tatum's, and he practically knows no limits on the Steinway. He is also a fine conductor, and he accomplishes what a "Pops" orchestra is meant to do, namely, to mix sheer fun with some serious music-making in genres which the typical symphony orchestra usually eschews. Philadelphia is lucky to have him and his, by now, trademark Philly Pops.