Fort Worth — What Byron Stripling contributes to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s first pops concert of the year is nothing short of spectacular. The first performance, on Friday, of a weekend-long run of Ragtime, Blues, & All That Jazz at Bass Performance Hall saw a crowded house thoroughly delighted by the featured musician’s internationally renowned talent and larger than life personality.
A virtuosic trumpeter with a soulful voice, Stripling leads the program as soloist, vocalist, and conductor for the evening. His command of the stage is natural and fluid, with an onstage charisma and charm that transports the audience back to the illustrious days of Satchmo and Irving Berlin. He’s an imposing figure on stage—wide-armed and tall—making it impossible to take your eyes off him for even a moment, and with his gleefully contagious smile that conveys a true love for the artform, there is little reason to want to.
Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” opens the show with quick-tempoed boldness and Stripling’s trumpet singing. Right from the get-go, he demonstrates why his artistry is so widely acclaimed. His lines are incredibly bright and clear with piercing high notes and surprisingly rich bottoms. One after another, he executes dizzying runs and wows the audience with a strong command of circular breathing—a unique ability that allows him to hold notes out for an insanely long time.
As entertaining as his trumpeting is, so too is this musician’s voice. In stark contrast in color and tone to his trumpet, Stripling sings with a raw and raspy baritone that is unapologetically expressive. In songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Got My Mojo Working,” he perfectly embodies the full-bodied vocal character of Louis Armstrong—a natural blend of Delta blues, soul, and jazz. And, being someone who is not afraid to silence to the audience for clapping on the wrong beat, he remains consistently entertaining with every word out of his mouth.
Accompanying Stripling on piano and a Hammond B3 organ is the phenomenal Bobby Floyd. Throughout the program, Floyd’s nimble precision on the keys lays out a masterful soundscape that reminds one of the juke joints of yore. He provides a thoughtful rendition of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and a soulful, lamenting solo in “Saint James Infirmary,” which is a beautifully emotive piece performed expertly by this ensemble. Most notable, though, is Floyd’s impeccable improvisation on the traditional hymn, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which deservedly received roaring applause and a standing ovation.
For this program, the FWSO plays the role of a studio orchestra—providing a rich, solid background and colorful support for Stripling and Floyd, and they do it well. Their command over the material is solid and their ability to follow the organic flow of Stripling’s interpretations demonstrates polished musicianship.
This program is rife with special moments and musical brilliance. What’s more, it provides a much-needed dynamic to the series as a whole. Ragtime, blues, jazz, rock n’ roll—they all can trace their roots back to gospel traditions, which is a fact that often goes unacknowledged in critical interpretations. The most refreshing thing about Stripling and his program is his authenticity and his honest commitment to honoring nearly a century and a half of African-American cultural achievements. With marked precision and bravado, I can’t imagine a more appropriate vehicle for delivering such an aim.