During a "real" winter, the likes of which we haven't seen for many seasons, what a delight to sit back in a beautiful, warm theater and be treated to an evening of jazzy Velvet Songs, superbly presented by the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops! Orchestra and special guests. Marvin Hamlisch serves as conductor and host for featured guest performers Melba Moore, The John Pizzarelli Trio, the Sullivan Brothers, the White Tie Group, and cellist Louis Lowenstein. The nicely conceived list of selections offers a range of styles of jazz music, all well-interpreted, resulting in a very strong and satisfying program.
The orchestra begins the evening with a medley of Duke Ellington standards (arr. Calvin Custer), a great choice to launch the show and a fine opportunity for Hamlisch and musicians to show how a large orchestra can present jazz. Following this introduction, Russian Cellist Mikhail Istomin and the White Tie Group perform a lively "Bolling Suite for Cello and Trio," followed by The Sullivan Brothers' (Pittsburgh Symphony member Peter Sullivan on trombone, Tim Sullivan on piano, Joe Sullivan on trumpet) spirited take on the Johnny Mercer/David Raskin classic, "Laura."
Once The John Pizzarelli Trio (John Pizzarelli, Ray Kennedy, Martin Pizzarelli) begin their first set, the title of this evening is truly realized - these guys are smoother than smooth. The trio's renditions of "Love" (Bert Kaempfert and Milt Gabler) and "I've Got Rhythm" (George & Ira Gershwin) are lush and polished without sounding over-designed. Since the symphony accompaniment occasionally threatens to overtake the group's intimate sound, the third offering in this set, Ray Kennedy's "Oscar Night," is a highlight as the trio takes off on its own. The performance of Kennedy on his own composition is really thrilling. John Pizzarelli's vocals are straightforward and mellow, and he can scat with his guitar in a way that enhances, rather than distracts from, his amazing playing. The delectable final number in this set, "Straighten Up and Fly Right" (Nat King Cole and Irving Mills) features a wonderful "challenge duet" of guitar and piano.
As a little teaser for the second act, Melba Moore (Hair, Purlie) arrives on stage, looking gorgeous in a flaming red ensemble. Accompanied by the Trio, Moore offers us her own style of jazz scat, with several examples of her legendary four octave vocal range. Her performance is passionate and energetic.
After Louis Lowenstein introduces us to the electric cello, with a great selection accompanied by Eric Susoeff on guitar, act two really takes off with the orchestra's first-rate presentation of "On the Town, Movement 3" by Leonard Bernstein. Hamlisch says Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein are two of the few composers who can really make an orchestra swing, and that feeling is confirmed with this piece.
Melba Moore returns (this time, outfitted in a stunning black and white evening gown) and entertains with her unique, free-style jazz interpretations of "Blue Skies" (Irving Berlin) and "I Concentrate on You" (Cole Porter). Moore's vocal style is very unique, and she puts into voice her definition of jazz ("a surprise party," as she tells Hamlisch).
Everyone gets to show their stuff in a rousing jam session, with each participant taking 12 bars to provide his/her own free-spirited jazz solo with a personal touch. A satisfying button to seal the end of the evening is a well appreciated encore by the John Pizzarelli Trio, "Lady Be Good" (George and Ira Gershwin). Here, the symphony and trio integrate perfectly.
It's hard to imagine a more satisfying evening with the Pops orchestra. Marvin Hamlisch, always appreciative of his Pittsburgh audience and proud of his orchestra, provides interesting commentary and seems to enjoy the program as much as the audience. The affable John Pizzarelli also adds humor and warmth to the evening with an anecdote and a live presentation (at Hamlisch's request) of the trio's popular jingle for Foxwoods Resort Casino.
The highly recommended Velvet Songs should not be missed. Remaining performances are January 17 and January 18 at 8:00, and Sunday January 19 at 7:30. For tickets or more information, call 412-392-4900 or visit www.pittsburghsymphony.org/.
The next Pops concert will be a Tribute to Henry Mancini, beginning March 6.