Sunday, March 1, 2015

APA's Jazz Fellowship Awards: The last concert in the Premiere Series upholds the quality of the finalist field

The nearly season-long buildup toward the selection of the Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz has no better a guarantee of tension and pleasure than the Premiere Series.  That trio gig at the Jazz Kitchen is the high point in the brief residency each of five finalists selected by the American Pianists Association's preliminary jury (of which I was honored to be a member) has in town.

Kris Bowers has an engaging talent for drawing on related genres.
With the appearance of Kris Bowers Saturday night at the Kitchen, which was filled to capacity, the series is complete. Now everyone has to wait till the semifinals March 27 at the Northside club/eatery and the finals at Hilbert Circle Theatre the following evening to learn which of the young pianists will get the inestimable career boost the fellowship provides to its quadrennial recipient.

In common with his fellow contestants, Bowers enjoyed the excellent services of local musicians Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums, to put across his ideas and reinforce his grooves.

The Los Angeles native has already launched a professional career. His recognition includes first place in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition three years ago last September.

At the Jazz Kitchen, he displayed a pronounced feeling for melody, something which his receptivity to pop music doubtless encourages. His original compositions carry this out: "Selah" has a peaceful theme that, during the composer's solo, was flecked with ornamentation that could suddenly turn incisive without impairing the performance's unity.

He likes to explore a wide dynamic range, as evidenced by another original, "Vices and Virtues." He has a gift for making accented notes consistent with their surroundings. A variety of accent volume is missing in many jazz pianists' performances; with Bowers, it's part of his expressive palette.

Confident enough to recede into the background and fashion accompaniments of quiet urgency, he gave quite a bit of solo space to Tucker and clearly inspired Phelps, who in any case never hogs the bandstand, to vary timbre and dynamics throughout the program. The drummer, well-known for sensitivity to the musicians he shares the stage with, matched Bowers' rhythmic aplomb with his own: Phelps even knows how to accent rests when he's of a mind to.

In Bowers' almost prayerful "Hope," Tucker took his best solo of the set, and Phelps was marvelous throughout, focusing on subtle brushwork.  He sometimes rubbed up the nap on that texture by exchanging the brush for the stick in his right hand, sounding equally delicate but getting that extra cymbal-edge ping when he felt it was called for.

Bowers seems to know the jazz piano tradition, yet he's not likely to exhibit his knowledge blatantly.  He evoked the quirky rhythmic knots in Thelonious Monk's compositions without aping Monk's style in the vivid unaccompanied medley with which he ended the set. In his earlier unaccompanied outing, he both reharmonized and re-rhythmized (there's a neologism for you!) Juan Tizol's signature contribution to the Duke Ellington songbook, "Caravan."

Sounding rootsy and up-to-date at the same time, Bowers and his bandmates made the most of a couple of his inspirations from pop music, "The Spirit" and "Gangsta."  Whenever the pianist dug into a riff or a motif, he never seemed trapped in it. A pianist who can dial back such intensity without seeming to pad or woolgather is making a pretty fair bid to hold the public's attention indefinitely — no matter what the result on March 28.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

20th-century American music, never a surefire draw on symphony orchestra programs, earns its keep on the ISO schedule this weekend

Jeffrey Kahane displayed flair and sensitivity.
The odd absence on most American orchestra schedules of American music has been a puzzle to me ever since the bicentennial boomlet of that repertoire in 1976.  Naively, I thought widespread acquaintance with American composers would whet the appetites of managements and audiences alike to wave the flag, musically speaking, and everyone would benefit year after year.

It never happened, though the market allure of world premieres has swelled the number of fresh commissions from composers with a social security number. What about those deuxiemes, those troisiemes, and so on? Better not ask.

Well-known names and familiar pieces from the American catalog can still bring out the crowds, however, as was evident at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday night, when guest artist Jeffrey Kahane played and conducted an all-American concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Kahane, appearing for the eighth time as an ISO guest over a 32-year span (as he told the audience at the outset), practically pulsated with enthusiasm throughout the program.

To turn at once to the evening's tour de force: He conducted from the keyboard George Gershwin's Concerto in F.  A great deal of orchestral and pianistic activity overlaps in this old favorite, so Kahane was busy. Between standing up to lead the tuttis and sitting back down to resume his solo duties, he also needed to turn pages in the score and flip his tails out of the way whenever he dropped back quickly to the bench. A sensible short jacket would have taken away one part of the show, which was great fun to watch.

Beyond that, this was an electrifying performance. The rhythmic elan was unceasing, a naturally applied element that unified piano and orchestra with hardly a lapse of coordination. Especially impressive was the middle movement, insofar as it seemed a great adventure throughout, like a brisk walk around and about Manhattan.  The fast episodes burst naturally out of the bluesy main material, which featured excellent trumpet solos and the delicate moan of oboe against clarinets.

The huge ovation that followed the last booming chord unsurprisingly blended admiration and sheer astonishment.

Matters had been no less expertly brought off in the concert's first half. The intricate perpetual-motion machine known as "Lollapalooza," a jumpy, clattering curtain-raiser by John Adams, required maximum alertness. One false wind entrance near the end marred what seemed to be a thoroughly engaged account of the work. The music is typical of the composer's "enhanced minimalism," in which repeated short structures are subjected to virtuoso tweaking, this time resting on the "beat" of the word "lollapalooza."

What a perfect segue the Adams provided for Leonard Bernstein's Three Dance Episodes from "On the Town"! The opening movement dialed back the relentlessness of Adams' procedures to the Broadway sass of Bernstein in his formative years as a composer. But the kinship seemed unmistakable. There are hitches and jazzy arabesques throughout the three pieces, with considerable relief in "Lonely Town," featuring a plaintive English-horn solo. The last episode, launched by the dependably cheeky E-flat clarinet, featured a take-no-prisoners alto sax solo by the redoubtable Mark Ortwein.

To demonstrate that he is more than a one-man pep band, Kahane drew from the orchestra a wonderfully textured account of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" suite to end the first half. The segments of the Martha Graham ballet for which Copland provided such an eloquent setting were richly characterized. The suite displays Copland's durable knack for sensing what will go over with concert audiences; he removed all the boring bits from the original, "Ballet for Martha."

In this performance, the suite's concluding measures created a hushed atmosphere of peace in an idealized rural setting, with the orchestra putting forth the kind of true pianissimos the current music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, and his predecessor, Mario Venzago, have worked on achieving.

Fitting right into the evening's high spirits, the post-intermission video interview with principal tuba Anthony Kniffen presented a charming portrait of a light-hearted expert on his heavy, deep-voiced instrument. He came across as articulate, devoted, and unpretentious about his art.

After the video finished, when associate concertmaster Philip Palermo went to the piano to sound the tuning note, Kniffen rather than the first-chair oboist was the first to match it from deep within the orchestra. For a moment, it was all about the bass.

Friday, February 27, 2015

First Wes Montgomery Tribute Award presentation and concert coming this Sunday

Steve Weakley is first recipient of a new award.

Ralph Adams has long tended the Indianapolis jazz garden, making sure local talent both past and present is properly nurtured and remembered. His latest venture is to hold up the Wes Montgomery legacy as a way to honor outstanding local contributors to the music.

Wes Montgomery (1923-68)
The inaugural award goes to Steve Weakley, a veteran jazz guitarist whose work around the city is well-known. Adams, in cooperation with Chef Joseph's, Indiana Black Expo, Stuart Mortuary, the Indianapolis Recorder, and Jazz-City Internet Radio, will present Weakley in concert, fronting a quartet, at 6 p.m. Sunday (March 1) at Chef Joseph's, 115 E. Ohio St.

Advance tickets, $12 each, are available online +Eventbrite
Admission at the door, which opens at 5 p.m. Sunday,  is $15.

Joining Weakley will be Kevin Anker, organ; Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums, and Rob Dixon, tenor saxophone.

Montgomery, the best-known of a fraternal set of jazz musicians that included bassist Monk and pianist-vibraphonist Buddy, is remembered in part for the brevity of his professional career — snuffed out prematurely like the lives of too many important jazz musicians. Just 20 years after earning professional credibility on the road with the Lionel Hampton band in 1948, the guitarist died suddenly of a heart attack in his hometown, Indianapolis, which continued to be his home base after his international fame was established.

With his brothers and other Naptown notables including the late pianist-organist Melvin Rhyne, Montgomery contributed to the substantial reputation of the Indiana Avenue jazz scene in the 1950s.  A famous phone call from touring saxophonist Cannonball Adderley from an Avenue hotspot to Orrin Keepnews, his label boss, got the guitarist signed with Riverside Records, where he made most of his outstanding recordings. He is remembered for his fertile single-line solos as well as his signature long-running octave lines.

His career in the 1960s was marked by what many have lamented as a distinct commercial turn, though there are outstanding monuments to his genuine jazz playing available on Verve.  His technical facility, melodic gift, and the amiable, relaxed nature of his style lent him viability as a pop-jazz star in the last year or so of his life.

A Mexican symphony orchestra is welcomed with consular recognition and an enraptured audience to Carmel's Palladium

Enrique Bátiz elicited splendid playing from his orchestra
The homeland salute was reserved for two spacious encores, but there was no doubt about hemispheric solidarity with the Mexican diaspora Thursday night at the Palladium, when the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico played a well-received concert under the baton of its founder, Enrique Bátiz.

Opening speeches including  bilingual welcomes by the Center for the Performing Arts' CEO, Cuban-born Tania Castroverde Moskalenko,  and Jorge Sánchez, Mexican consul in Indianapolis. About those encores: The concert's soloist, guitarist Alfonso Moreno, offered a tender Mexican love song, Un Viejo Amor, accompanied by several of the string players. At the end of the printed program, Bátiz led the orchestra in a long, splashy evocation of Mexico, followed by a rousing salute to the host country in the form of John Philip Sousa's "Liberty Bell" march.

The announced program comprised a first half with the musician's cultural connection to Spain intact.  Joaquin Turina's Danzas Fantásticas is a tripartite survey of Andalusian dance forms, imaginatively combined and transformed. It's a tidy suite that put the audience on notice that the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico's sound favors breadth and splendor. The performance also showcased superior solo playing, of which sometimes amazing exhibitions were to come later as well.

Moreno's sturdy, soulful account of the most famous of guitar concertos — Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez — followed. A nimble player in the outer movements, his singing tone in the work's frequent melodic moments actually benefited from not being too pristine.  It had a folk-inflected vigor, with a little roughness at the edges, and a winning soulfulness.

As for the orchestra, a lovely four-note French horn phrase between the long English-horn solos in the well-known slow movement indicated that more good things would be heard from this player in Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, which occupied the concert's second half. The assertive launch of the first movement, however, tended to confirm my impression that absolute precision is not a priority with this orchestra. Unity is a concept that, on the evidence of this concert, is designedly an overall achievement — more a matter of leaning into the sound and expression of musical paragraphs than making sure each "sentence" is neatly finished.

The exposition was repeated, which allowed the music to become a little firmer and conform more to the international orchestral standard. The horn section came through handsomely as the piece proceeded, and  the bassoons were also superior, soaring and creamy-toned.  The ensemble unity was remarkable in the finale, considering the slight imprecision that had been more characteristic earlier. True, the interpretation did not represent the last word in expressive warmth, but it was always sonorous and well-balanced.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the choice of two of three works with quiet endings was a deliberate way to highlight the high-energy first encore, putting a firm "made in Mexico" stamp on the orchestra's debut appearance in this area. From the standpoint of showmanship, such programming savvy achieved the desired effect with the audience.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A dream of master sleuthing: IRT's production of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'

R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette have hatched a dream about "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and the current production at Indiana Repertory Theatre is a deft interpretation of it.
Before the triggering event: Sir Charles waves off servant's assistance on the treacherous moor.

What the playwrights have done with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous tale resembles one kind of dreaming that fascinates us: the way our unconscious often crafts a scenario that takes what we know about people, mixes in our suppositions about and impressions of them, adds a considerable amount of bizarre behavior that makes more sense than it should, then delivers us dry-shod on the shores of consciousness oddly refreshed and amused.

When the dreamed-of genre is famous detective fiction, it's a sure bet that the deliverance will be tidier than the outcome of most dreams. In the Wright-Pichette adaptation, the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes are intact, though the playwright team's dream initially presents him bored with exercising those skills on crimes unworthy of him.

Watson (Matthew Brumlow) and Holmes (Marcus Truschinski) confer.
As seen Wednesday night, Marcus Truschinski's crisp fretfulness in the role strikingly laments the triviality of the demands made upon Holmes, and he has a temper. He bickers with Dr. Watson (Matthew Brumlow) more as a colleague than the occasionally dense underling we know from Nigel Bruce's film portrayal opposite the suave Basil Rathbone.

Veteran IRT director Peter Amster draws performances from the protean cast of nine that allow Wright-Pichette's cluttered dream to fall into place. My problem with the show is that I seem to be viewing all the competent, smoothly integrated action through a scrim. I use the term figuratively, because the look of the production (including startling, apt projections) is everything it should be: moody, evocative, technically deft, and in full partnership with the lighting and sound design.

The scrim I'm suggesting is a slight barrier — a dimming effect — that the story and the way it is told sets up between the acting and the audience. I'm not objecting to the fun that Wright-Pichette have with aspects of the Holmes persona. The legend permits teasing, and this treatment of it avoids campiness. That's why the self-referential interpolation by Brumlow of the line "The game's afoot" (with the parting shot that he always wanted to say that) fits right in. (Brumlow starred as an actor famous for portraying Sherlock Holmes in last year's IRT production of "The Game's Afoot.")

It's part of our collective dream of this master detective that his reasoning and observing powers border on the preternatural. The information Holmes gathers in the first scene from superficial scrutiny of James Mortimer (an excitable Ryan Artzberger) through the window of his Baker Street flat satisfies something everyone wishes for. If we suspected a stranger were shadowing us or simply about to come into our lives, wouldn't we like for even a momentary glimpse to jump-start our knowledge of him? Frankly, even out of idle curiosity, we often find ourselves wanting to know a lot more about people when it's none of our business.

Raw nerves are exposed as Sir Henry's dinner party concludes.
Holmes is a mighty character with worldwide appeal because of such normally unfulfilled desires. The Wright-Pichette dream is fully sensitive to that. But the authors are too fond of complicating the scenario Doyle left them with. I'm still trying to sort out the negative energy released at the end of the dinner party that the Baskerville heir, the ill-at-ease Canadian Sir Henry (Eric Parks), hosts.

I suspect that the playwrights relished the chance to have so much hostility displayed just to keep the audience guessing about the source of evil adding to the setting's atmosphere of foreboding. It's a somewhat mechanical set-up for the surprises in the play's final scene, which have that piled-on quality I've alluded to about dreamland.

Henry tries to comfort Beryl: If only he knew why that's impossible.
I'll admit I'm far from the ideal audience for detective fiction, whether written or staged. Part of me doesn't want things to fall into place. And I get embarrassed when my deductive powers are so far behind the detective's. Here, for instance, when it's pretty obvious how to answer the crucial question "Who released the hound?" late in the third act, I'm still wondering if it's a character I haven't seen yet. This makes no sense when there's a cast of nine (also including Mark Goetzinger, Robert Neal, Constance Macy, Will Mobley, and Cristina Panfilio) and you can eliminate the fleeting impersonations of ticket agents or porters taken on by actors who are all accounted for in the scene in front of you.

For better or worse, I'm a self-confessed aesthete, even though  I'm painfully reminded of Stephen Spender's warning (in his analysis of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") that "aestheticism is the last refuge of the ineffective." Detective fiction, on the other hand,  is all about effectiveness. What pleases its fans is the intricacy and final unambiguity of its puzzles.  "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is a fantasy reined in only by the superficially unlikely triumph of logic and ratiocination. The style that suits it doesn't have much room for the three-dimensional richness of the best art.

Within its limits, the fantasy-in-a-lock-box now gracing IRT's mainstage is undeniably effective. But it's the effectiveness of a kind of dreaming I'm unable to fully sympathize with when it's so spookily paraded before me. The show's appeal is, you might say, elementary. But that's all it is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trombonissimo: My choice of 10 great trombone moments from the orchestral literature

I can't let the memory of last weekend's final measures from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra fade any further without lifting up the wonderful trombone glissando — a French/Spanish version of Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp" if ever there was one — in "Feria," the festive conclusion of Maurice Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole."

As I said in my review, just a couple of raucous smears evokes the suggestion that collective good times are about to get out of hand — as they often do when people pour into the streets to party. Then the piece ends, at just the right time.

Cologne Cathedral: Musically, it calls for trombones.
As a former trombonist, I count this moment among ten touchstones for my instrument in the orchestral literature.  I offer here nine others to suggest the marvelous ways composers characterize the trombone. Its voice is essential to so many pieces, though trombonists typically make do without the near omnipresence of their horn and trumpet cousins. Great composers make sure the trombones never wear out their welcome.

Here's another favorite glissando (a natural move in playing the slide trombone, but best used sparingly). This one has a more purely comic purpose: the double guffaw in between two statements of the "interruption" theme in the "Interrupted intermezzo" movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. That lively intrusion is generally taken to be a parody of the obsessive first-movement "invasion" theme in Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, which the ISO played to great acclaim earlier this month. Bartok puts a cap upon his use of the device with a "that's that!" glissando for trombones sweeping up to the piece's final chord.

The trombone is capable of so much expressively. Here are my other favorites, with brief commentary attached:

3. Picking up the "Feria" note of overflowing high spirits, the coda of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major, where I like to think the trombones kick up all the energy. Then they are given an unaccompanied sustained chord near the very end, between full-orchestra punctuation points. Thrillsville!

4. Trombones are good for transforming musical material introduced by other instruments into something that promises to deliver great excitement. When Berlioz wants to repurpose the Benvenuto Cellini love theme first stated by strings in the "Roman Carnival Overture," he places it over the initially soft return of the saltarello pattern and gives it to the trombones, of course. Goosebumps assured!

5. Wolfgang Mozart does something similarly dramatic, but in a sacred context, in his Vesperae solennes de confessore. The trombone writing is wonderful throughout, but let me direct your attention to the fugal movement, "Laudate pueri," where the trombones help the men introduce the subject. The psalmist's text thereby becomes not just an invitation to praise the Lord, but a command to do so. Blame (or credit) the trombones!

6. Mozart is not a composer readily associated with trombone glory, perhaps, though operagoers thrill to its accompaniment of the ghostly Commendatore in Don Giovanni. I'm leaving opera literature out of this list, however, because instrumental reinforcement of a dramatic situation is too hard to consider in isolation. Let me hold up instead a solo passage (more than a moment, it's true): the obbligato threaded along the vocal solo for bass in "Tuba mirum" from the Requiem.

Something that always excites me about this music is its poised declamation of the Last Judgment, in contrast with later, also wonderful (but noisy) settings of the same text by Berlioz and Verdi. When that Last Trump sounds, Mozart seems to be saying, it won't necessarily be all about the tumbling, writhing and rising figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It will be a somber event out of time, because God has all the time in the world. In other words, it will be as it is in Mozart, guided by a stately trombone.

7. Ravel's "Bolero" — thanks to its application to a sex scene in a forgettable movie some years ago — has unnecessarily erotic implications for today's audiences. But until the swelling repetitions discharge into the splendor (with that key change!) of the end, the attentive listener should not fail to notice the music's peculiar dignity and restraint. The sensuousness is held in check by this quality, no more so than in the high-register trombone solo placed just after some woodwinds have their say. Just one glissando helps underline the sensuousness, by the way, and lofty dignity rules when the solo is properly played — sostenuto, with its marcato accents scrupulously observed.

When all hell breaks loose in "The Miraculous Mandarin," the trombone is there.
8. Did sex rear its ugly head?  OK, here's another Bartok example where the temptation of carnality applies: "The Miraculous Mandarin," a ballet-pantomime more controversial, and for longer, than Stravinsky's notorious "Rite of Spring." The figure in the title is less lustful than emotionally needy, however. He's apparently deathless (much to the consternation of his would-be killers) and really just wants love. When the girl posing as a prostitute in this lurid scenario gauges the intensity of the Mandarin's interest, she is horrified. After her seductive waltz climaxes, a muted trombone enters with a ghastly snarl, introducing a climactic chase that ends in the Mandarin's release from his earthly trials only when the girl finally pities him. So, that forceful, muted outburst is both Freudian and pivotal, and it's a trombonistic masterstroke.

9. How about a symphonic structure actually expanded to permit a showcase for the trombone section? Oh, the glory! The movement marked "Solemn" in Robert Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony (No. 3 in E-flat major) reflects the composer's admiration for the Cologne Cathedral.  For centuries, this Gothic structure has been the most imposing landmark near the shores of the storied Rhine River that lends the symphony its nickname. An architectural masterpiece and trombones — a natural match, it seems to me.

Spruce Goose aloft: Sound accompanying takeoff in "The Aviator" may have borrowed from Beethoven's use of trombones

10. Finally, everyone knows Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor. To the casual listener,  the first movement (or at least its four-note motif) is iconic. But the work's genius partly relies on the wonderful suspense as the third movement yields to the climactic fourth. And when that note of triumph is sounded, the trombones are right there — for the first time in the score. There's nothing like it: You feel your spirit taking off.

Speaking of which: Years ago, after seeing the movie about Howard Hughes called "The Aviator," I mentioned to my son Theodore how impressed I was that speakers from the theater's four corners were finally engaged to represent the sound of Hughes' dream aircraft "the Spruce Goose" roaring down the runway. The sound of planes flown earlier in the film had come from near the screen.

"That was like when the trombones enter in the finale of Beethoven's Fifth," I marveled. Theodore  said he guessed I was the only person who would notice such a parallel. Really? I thought. Well, why not? I'm a trombonist, after all.

Besides, trombones have had a longer ride than the Spruce Goose.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Real Group represents pop harmony vocalism polished to a fare-thee-well at University of Indianapolis

Anders Jalkeus (second from right) was replaced here by Janis Strazdins.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center, the University of Indianapolis welcomed a vocal ensemble celebrating its 30th anniversary to grace the Ruth Lilly Performance Hall.

Nearly all its 500 seats were filled Sunday afternoon as the Real Group, an amiable, well-honed quintet from Sweden took the stage with an ethereal vocalise. Hand-held microphones — their blend exquisitely engineered — are an essential ingredient of the sound, with occasional assistance from an electronic sequencer.

The latter device gave a nice overlay to the singers' harmonies in "Words," an original song that opened the show. The power of words in English — both sung and spoken — gave the three Swedes, one Dane and one Latvian (substitute bass Janis Strazdins) immediate rapport with the audience.

The patter, the arrangements, the fluid movement around the large stage — everything was polished and snazzy.  There were touches of gentle satire — male voices dominated the quizzical scrutiny of men's dilemmas today in "The Modern Man" — but more often we got tuneful messages from the mellow side: Errol Garner's "Misty," RG member Katarina Henryson's "Commonly Unique," RG tenor Morten Vinther's paean to soprano Emma Nilsdotter's son "Lucky Luke."

I understand the Real Group's range includes Scandinavian folk songs and classical pieces, but Sunday afternoon we heard just one of the former from that end of the spectrum. The prismatic pop music emphasis included international icons Michael Jackson and George Michael, in addition to a tribute to the late Swedish singer Alice Babs ("Scandinavian Shuffle") among the group's own songs.

There was some comparison of the Real Group in publicity for this concert to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross of hallowed memory, but I picked up little jazz feeling from the quintet's performance. They displayed rhythmic acuity, joined to accurate intonation, and the vocal interaction was nimble and texturally diverse. For example, Anders Edenroth sometimes switched mics, one presumably allowing him to shore up Strazdins' bass more, the other favoring the upper portion of his range.

The Real Group knows its stuff, all right. There's not a hair out of place, musically speaking.

They reminded me of the Hi-Lo's, an all-male quartet highly regarded in the 1950s and '60s for their smooth execution of clever arrangements, drawing mostly on Great American Songbook pop. Like the Real Group, the Hi-Lo's had a jazz-inflected style with perhaps a little too much polish to remain interesting over the long haul. Admittedly, it's hard to argue with a career long haul of three decades. But for me, one concert's worth was sufficient.