Friday, September 11, 2015

Indy Jazz Fest opens with a salute to the pride of Hoboken, Frank Sinatra

It was more a tip of the fedora than a full-scale salute or ring-a-ding-ding genuflection, yet the opening night of the 2015 Indy Jazz Fest served the purpose well enough of memorializing a popular singer who practically invented "the standard" — Frank Sinatra.

In the centennial celebrations surrounding Sinatra's birth, this was decidedly a modest tribute attended by a large crowd in the  Lilly Performance Hall of the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center. But it was not without style and panache. True, it came close to diluting those qualities in an enthusiastic but poorly arranged finale, "New York, New York," with the three guest singers uneasily distributing phrases of the durable show-stopper.

Keynote address: They paid homage to Frank Sinatra and launched a voice-centered festival.
Everything that led up to that song, however, displayed a fine collegial spirit in addition to showing off the personal styles of the vocalists: Rick Vale, Everett Greene, and Laney Wilson. Bandleader Rob Dixon rightly emphasized that each of the men has his own style. It was not for the sake of imitating Sinatra that the singers presented such songs as "Night and Day," "Come Fly With Me," and "The Lady Is a Tramp." Instead, it was a clever, timely way for this year's festival to point up its vocal emphasis in a lineup including such notables as Dianne Reeves, Jonathan Butler and Take 6.

Sinatra was such a virtuoso of his era's pop music that the way he sang a song assured it of a place in everybody's memory book. And his ability to swing and individualize a song's phrases was in such sympathy with the spirit of jazz that he shone among expert instrumentalists who could get people up and dancing, from Tommy Dorsey to Count Basie. He didn't improvise, he didn't scat (well, there was that "dooby-dooby-doo" stuff in "Strangers in the Night"), but his timing and rhythmic kick qualified him as a jazz singer. It's a loose category by any measure.

The band couldn't have been more adaptable to the vocalists. In addition to saxophonist Dixon, it consisted of Mark Buselli, flugelhorn/trumpet; Steven Jones, piano; Nick Tucker, bass, and Kenny Phelps, drums.

Ol' Blue Eyes in the Capitol years.
The rapport was evident in both ballads and uptempo swingers. Wilson's glide into "There Will Never Be Another You" generated nifty solos from Dixon and Tucker; in between was some smart interaction between Buselli and Phelps. As a reliably expressive player, Buselli was adept at underlining  the mood of a song, as in Vale's wry performance of "The Lady Is a Tramp," which was completed by a flugelhorn solo ending in a low, sustained growl.

Of the eight songs, most were ballads. Initially, Wilson crooned with subtle rhythm section accompaniment only in "Misty." Again, Buselli on flugelhorn was very much in the singer's spirit. So was Phelps, with his subtle stick changes as the piece progressed. It ended with a floating falsetto phrase: "Look at me." We were certainly listening, too.

Greene's affectionate way with his material rode atop some time-engendered decline in his vocal prowess. But he has moved into old age with much of his liquescent basso intact. He manages to sing while smiling, which suited the optimism of "I've Got the World on a String" and the nostalgia of "Autumn in New York," but fit less well with "Blues in the Night." That blues-related song was turned into a pure blues in the solos, featuring Buselli's adeptness with the plunger mute, then an open-horn wailing interval for both horns that had the crowd roaring.

From the moment Dixon tore into his solo after Wilson had extended his "Fly Me to the Moon" proposal, the tenor saxophonist was inclined to favor flurries of notes. He was not in the mood to stress long note values except at a few crowd-pleasing peaks; I missed more display of his gifts as a melody-maker.

Graceful as always, Jones lacked depth of tone at the grand piano, the result perhaps of too much time spent playing electric keyboards.  Tucker, miked just right for this appearance, accompanied with aplomb, and made the most of his solo in "There Will Never Be Another You."

All told, and setting aside any notion that Sinatra's sound was supposed to be replicated in the vocals, I never heard these singers approach the Master in one important respect: the astonishing breath support that allowed him to carry off a long phrase while sounding relaxed and still have some oomph to invest at the end (if the occasion called for reaching a climax). Admittedly, by the time I saw him at Deer Creek Music Center late in his career, Sinatra's phrasing had become a little clipped, the climactic long notes carefully cut off before they sounded frayed.

There were hints of the midcareer Sinatra in some of Wilson's singing. In Greene's, there was that warmth. In Vale's, there was something of the right sass and offhand elegance. We'll take all that as a good enough approximation, benefiting from savvy accompaniments (there were some lovely codas) — and move on with enthusiasm into the rest of the festival.

And, by the way, who needs to hear "New York, New York" sung by anyone other than Sinatra?

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

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