Sunday, April 21, 2002

Music Hall swings to power of Pops

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “Are ya in the mood?” Maestro Erich Kunzel crowed Friday night, as he revved up his big machine, the Cincinnati Pops, for a night of swing.

        With the jazz-pop group Manhattan Transfer and several renowned studio jazz musicians, it was an engaging evening of sophisticated swing and over-the-top high notes. But it was guitarist John Pizzarelli who charmed the capacity crowd at Music Hall most, with his breathtaking picking and boy-next-door personality.

        He came out with “Avalon,” a piece that featured fancy fingerwork and Mr. Pizzarelli's sweet, pleasant tenor. He leaned into his guitar, tapped a foot, improvised like a true virtuoso and, backed by splashy accompaniment in the Pops, made it look so easy.

        His vocal intonation was dead-on in George and Ira Gershwin's “Isn't It a Pity,” a pretty ballad enhanced by the rippling piano of Julie Spangler. The two carried on a witty repartee later in Nat “King” Cole's “Straighten Up and Fly Right” — where Mr. Pizzarelli worked in a little “Tea for Two.”

        But it was a swinging “I'm an Errand Boy for Rhythm” that brought down the house, where Mr. Pizzarelli matched his vocal pyrotechnics so perfectly to his guitar wizardry, it was hard to tell which was which. Later, he amazed some more with an encore: “Three Little Words.”

        Manhattan Transfer, now in its 30th year, is a foursome endowed with uncanny timing, blend and most of all, style.

        They took a while to warm up in uptempo tunes like the rambling “Body and Soul” and “Skyliner,” the latter which they were performing live for the first time. (Balance in the mikes was off, too.) A slow-motion “Clouds,” a take-off on Debussy's Nuages, had some knock-out improvisations by Cheryl Bentyne.

        In Benny Goodman's “It's Good Enough to Keep,” singers Tim Hauser and Alan Paul provided an electric display, despite odd peeps from Ms. Bentyne. Her “Sugar” was steamy, with a beautiful interlude by Cincinnati's Rick VanMatre on clarinet.

        But it was the encore, Louis Jordan's “Choo Choo Ch' Boogie,” that was their most polished and spontaneous performance.

        Janis Siegel, one of the founding members, is a superb jazz singer when she goes solo. Her smoky-voiced “I'll Be Seeing You” gave off a feeling of wistful nostalgia.

        Superb instrumentalists sat in with the Pops, and tunes like “String of Pearls” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” positively cooked. They all jumped in for Count Basie's “Jumpin' at the Woodside”: Mr. VanMatre on tenor sax; Jim Pugh on trombone; Antonio Hart on alto sax, and Vincent DiMartino in the stratosphere on trumpet.


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