Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Pops audience arrived at the Meyerson Symphony Center Friday expecting a fond remembrance of a famous crooner—Frank Sinatra on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth—and got much more.
The Big Band singer idiom, almost single handedly invented by Sinatra, has been dominated of late by Michael Bublé and before him Harry Connick, Jr. They upheld that tradition well, as has the lesser-known star Curtis Stigers, who performed with the DSO. Never an imitation, he offered a unique and entertaining rendition of jazz standards made popular by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.
The DSO, dressed in concert black but with colorful neckties because it’s a pops concert, were led by Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik. He arranged many of the offerings on the program and began the evening with an overture of Sinatra classics such as “Strangers in the Night” and “My Kind of Town.” His orchestrations sought to balance this “musical family”: the DSO with Stigers and his jazz trio at center stage.
Before introducing Stigers, who some may know as the Emmy-nominated co-writer and singer of the theme song for the TV show Sons of Anarchy, respect was offered to the legendary Sultan of Swing. Tyzik said that “Frank did two important things as a singer: one, he focused on the lyric and sang the story. Two, he sings in the ‘pocket’.” The rhythmic feel of his phrasing swung like the jazz greats that accompanied on his successful albums and was supported by deep classically trained breaths. The influence of his style on pop singing is impossible to calculate and was pleasingly evident as soon as Stigers kicked off “Come Fly with Me.”
Comfortable, confident, affable, and assured, his vocal technique never approached showiness and consistently delivered the material with soulful nuance. As gently reedy as his tenor saxophone, Stigers’ vocal treatment of the Sinatra catalogue was an effortless and errorless mixture of boisterous accent, syllabic triplets and vibrato ornament. Interspersed with some skilled session-ready sax solos, his singing seemed influenced by his instrument instead of the other way around. Explaining between songs that much of his career had been mimicking and then trying to not mimic the great Sinatra, Stigers’ original pop/jazz style avoided both interpretive adherence and the pitfalls of smooth jazz Muzak.
Giving credit where credit was due, though, was a more mixed affair. After the opening number Stigers said, “The original arranger for that song was Billy May and Nelson Riddle did that last one,” but the arranger of note in the program was the man at the podium, Maestro Tyzik. In fact the orchestrations for a couple of the evening’s most recognizable songs, Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under my Skin” and Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” came from Riddle and Quincy Jones, respectively. The former was influenced by Riddle’s love of the long slow build in Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. The strings to Tyzik’s peripheral stage left and right were at times doubling the original’s horn lines. Thus, failing to cite all arrangers’ contributions seemed an oversight.
The night’s first ballad was “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Sinatra had a way of drawing you into his personal story of occasional loss and loneliness. He could mourn into a microphone an intimate sadness about breaking up with the love of his life, Ava Gardner. All the sudden the listener was transported to his side a few hours before sunrise, experiencing a heart emptied out onto a turntable’s vinyl record. Perhaps the choice of delivering the song absent any narrative was a way of avoiding nostalgic distraction.
There were magical touches and tickling trills from the symphony and excellent improvisations from Matthew Fries on jazz piano and a lone saxophonist from the woodwind section. A full third of the program was what Stigers called “dream covers.” Songs of his and others, including Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, were included as experiments in “what if Sinatra had sung these songs?” These jazzless diversions were performed with similar orchestral support, the same vocal style, and functioned much the same as the rest of the concert. Sinatra, who never sat in the back seat for anyone, temporarily stepped aside from the evening’s proceedings. But the Chairman of the Board’s brash personality returned with “The Lady is a Tramp,” the orchestra finally showing appropriate sass.
The jazz combo felt comfortable enough in the second half of the program to breathe together and improvise on the edge of surprise, and the DSO responded to that call with a thankful, silky after-sigh. It was the closest thing to real swing all night. The orchestra could follow the drum kit as much as the end of a baton but to be clear, as accomplished as the Dallas Symphony is the Dallas Symphony Does. Not. Swing. This is not the Count Basie orchestra from Sinatra’s Live at the Sands album. But when playing the incredibly sweet Cottee arrangement of the Jerome Kern classic “All the Things You Are” the Sinatra essence came back into full effect, lead by Stigers’ impeccable timing.
An encore of “That’s All” had the audience applauding from the first lyric: “I can only give you love that lasts forever.” That same feeling accompanied Stigers’ appreciation to the orchestra at the end of the night. The audience returned the love; an evening of Sinatra classics made for a perfect pops season opener.
» Read our interview with Jeff Tyzik