Monday, May 23, 2011

A Night at the Cotton Club

May 17 the Toronto Symphony travelled back in time with a concert that was the pastiche of the 1920's and 30's when swing was king and the Cotton Club was the place to be.   Guest conductor Jeff Tyzik led guest artists Byron Stripling, Carmen Bradford, and Ted Louis Levy along with an interesting orchestra combination in A Night at the Cotton Club.

Dave Young
The Toronto Symphony itself was pared down to a smattering of strings taking up the left side of the stage with the basses on a raised platform at the back.  I'd say this isn't a location the basses are accustomed to given the very careful way they climbed the 4 or so steps with their expensive instruments.  A grand piano was placed centre stage and the right side was filled with a big band consisting of two French horns, a tuba (played by TSO regular Mark Tetreault I believe), several trombones, trumpets, and a full front row of saxes, with one alto player doubling a clarinet.  The lead trumpeter was fantastic although I can't recall his name.  John Johnson was the sax/clarinetist and Dave Young the plucking jazz bassist by the drum set who never stopped!  I expect the remainder were from the jazz world as well.

John Johnson
With this set up it was fascinating to see the dichotomy between the jazz and classical worlds.  More noticeable at the beginning of the evening, the jazz side moved with the music, tapped feet, nodded heads, and swayed bodies.  In contrast the classical side was more subdued in their movements.  There's a different kind of sway and a less pronounced joy in the genre.  And feet tapping?  Why that seems to be a no no, at least in any concert with classical repertoire.  By the end of the evening though, several violinists were tapping their feet and some more smiling faces emerged.  I don't doubt the TSO musicans have great respect for other styles of music and performers as there was often enthusiastic bow waving for soloists, it just takes them some time to get into it.  Indeed by the time Byron Stripling was calling for audience participation in a "Cotton Club Medley" the orchestra joined in singing the "highdee highdee highdee ho's" with more conviction than I've seen before.  Ted Levy mentioned how they were clapping with their feet in rehearsal and had them join in the dancing from their chairs.
The guest artists were all extremely talented and had great camaraderie amongst themselves.  I got the impression Byron and Carmen had worked together before and their vocals blended well.  Carmen was actually the last singer hired by Count Basie himself, and was a favourite of Ella Fitzgerald.  Her rendition of "Stormy Weather", popularized by another Cotton Club-er, Lena Horne, was particularly moving.

Grand Rapids Press
Byron's trumpet skills are stupendous and he flipped between singing and playing so effortlessly.  He even joined the big band section "sitting in" for one of the numbers as he said he'd never had the opportunity to play with strings before.  While this can't be the case given the other symphony orchestras he's guested with, it was a nice touch.

Ted Levy added humourous showmanship to the evening with his flamboyant tap dancing, singing, and joking around with Byron as they "instructed" each other in the art of having flow and how to perform jazz.  Ted did a tap dance segment from his chair which instantly made me think of the fabulous Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor "Sitting Dance".

The evening really had the feel of being in the type of place I imagine the Cotton Club was.  There could have been a bit less of "thanks for being here at the Cotton Club" which began each guests initial speaking segment, but by the end everyone was having a good time and if tsoundcheck tickets had of been posted for the next evenings show, I probably would have gone again!

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