Dallas — The incomparable Nat “King” Cole, known for his soft baritone and smooth, well-articulated vocals, has long been a representative of the gold standard in jazz music and performance. His sincerity and warmth served to define his style and distinguish him from his contemporaries.
These same qualities were displayed in full at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in downtown Dallas as Denzal Sinclaire performed the Nat “King” Cole Songbook. The Canadian jazz vocalist, performing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, brought these standards to life in a tribute to the Cole this weekend.
The nearly full house was incredibly receptive to Sinclaire’s earnestly debonair deportment, with each number earning applause ranging from robust to roaring. The soloist’s use of humor and wit between songs was endearing and kept the audience engaged through all 90 minutes of the performance.
Led by conductor Jeff Tyzik, who also arranged all but one of the songs performed throughout the evening, the DSO’s full and well-calibrated sound served as a beautiful backdrop for Sinclaire’s bright clarity.
They opened up the show with a lively rendition of “Day In, Day Out.” The opening phrases were a tad muddied as the singer acclimated to mic levels, but his musicianship quickly won out, and his voice shone through. “Walking My Baby Back Home” followed with an upbeat and bouncy walking bass line, which seemed to bring out Sinclaire’s dynamic personality through exciting facial expressions and gestures, which continued throughout the evening.
The smooth and melodic ballad “Mona Lisa” was a crowd favorite, with rich, emotive lead phrases in the string sections. Sinclaire’s use of straight-tone and long, drawn out lines made the piece all the more heartbreaking, which caused a number of audience members to preemptively applaud with grateful whoopings.
The well-known “Nature Boy” was also a crowd favorite. Sinclaire introduced the 1947 piece with a brief history of the song’s writer, Eden Ahbez, to whom he referred as “one of the original hippies.” He points out a poignant lyric from the piece that resonates with him: “One of the greatest things you’ll learn in life is to love and be loved in return.” The song was mysterious and dark, yet fanciful, with a flirty flute solo performed by principal flutist David Buck and a wrenching violin solo performed by co-concertmaster Nathan Olson. This number was a true standout for this spectator.
The ensemble ramps up the mood with a swinging version of the classic rhythm-and-blues standard “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.” Their rendition is brass-heavy with rousing solos on sax and piano from Alexander Kienle and Steve Harlos respectively. Sinclaire also joins the orchestration with his accompaniment on melodica, which added an almost accordion-like element to the texture.
The familiar tune, “Smile,” completely changed the color of the room, as the orchestra dropped out to make room for just voice and piano. Sinclaire noticeably thins out his vocals a bit here in order to dance delicately with the solo piano with phrasing that was expressively free and unpredictable. Audience members were drawn into the intimate sound of the number until the very end, when the vocalist motioned to the house to join him on the final “smile” to close out the song. The tenderness of this number was immediately opposed by the number that followed. “To the Ends of the Earth” had a sort of motion-picture soundtrack quality to it, with a dramatic horn section and orchestral flourish on the finish.
Sinclaire then let his charm and wit out to play, introducing the next number with more clever jokes and anecdotes. Composed by Mr. Cole himself in 1943, “Straighten Up and Fly Right” was originally performed by the Nat King Cole Trio. Sinclaire and the DSO pay homage to the tradition with a similar arrangement, with a texture comprised primarily of piano, bass, and drums, and an occasional solo on melodica performed by Sinclaire.
The full orchestra joined back in for “When I Fall in Love,” which was a beautiful slow love ballad that entranced the entire room, sending the audience into a collective sway. The melody was engaged and conversational, and the piece ended with a lovely violin solo.
Closing out the first set was the classic, crowd-pleasing “L-O-V-E,” which put Sinclaire’s natural crooner-style vocals in the fore. With large, demonstrative gestures, he invited the crowd to join in the singing of each individual letter, and ended the first half of the performance with a jubilant skipping jump.
While the first half of the performance consisted of all Nat King Cole standards, the second half was a collection of Sinclaire’s choices from a variety of genres.
He welcomed back the audience with a soul-wrenching rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which he arranged himself. The arrangement was bare and vulnerable, with Sinclaire singing solo a cappella. His deep, straight-tone baritone was piercing, with long, drawn-out diphthongs that added depth and meaning to every word. The a cappella intro was followed by a beautiful solo on cello, and then the two joined in together to repeat the solemn hymn.
The singer then showed off his skills on guitar for a surprisingly folksy “I’m Getting Ready,” written in 2011 by UK singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. This rendition was lightly triumphant and airy, with plucked guitar and piano comprising the texture. Their arrangement of the 70s soft-rock song “Follow You, Follow Me,” by Genesis, was a unique side-note that managed to fit into the vibe of the set.
Sinclaire picked up his melodica for one final time on “You and the Night and the Music,” alternating between singing and playing. His use of the melodica gave this interpretation a very Parisian feel, with subtle rhythms that gave this jazz standard a timeless sexiness.
The familiar melody of “Always on My Mind” was sweet and endearing. One could hear a collective swooning sigh from the audience after the first few notes were played. The piece was full, with a milky warmth, that was equal parts sentimental and intelligent.
Sinclaire was joined again by the rhythm section—drums, bass, and piano—for “Lucky Day” from George White’s Scandals of 1926. The stage brightened, washed with light, for this pick-me-up tune, featuring playing banter between drums and bass. The upbeat arrangement drew roaring applause from the audience.
Rounding out the set was “I’ve Got the World on a String,” which Sinclaire says “is about perspective,” and he performed the classic Harold Arlen jazz standard with that sentiment. The song began with a rich and large orchestral fanfare and maintained a full sound throughout. Sinclaire delivered the vocals exactly and passionately, bringing the house to its feet for a standing ovation.
Naturally, after Sinclaire exits the stage, Tyzik turned from his podium to address the audience saying, “One more?” And Sinclaire reclaimed center-stage to perform the long-awaited “Unforgettable” as an encore. The audience was thrilled, shouting with joy and singing along top the familiar Cole staple. The piece was deep, with an affectionate string accompaniment, bring the crowd yet again to its feet for a second standing ovation.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s collaboration on the Nat King Cole Songbook with Denzal Sinclaire and Jeff Tyzik amounted to a beautiful night of jazz standards and classic tunes that seemed to leave every audience member in a state of timeless wonder. It was a refreshing experience that connected viewers of all ages to one of the most artfully engaged eras in the history of American music.