Saturday, February 13, 2016

With the ISO, Jack Everly masterminds a smooth-flowing centennial tribute to Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra in the recording studio.
Pops programs that are well put together and flow with savoir faire come dependably from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's principal pops conductor, and the meticulousness of Frank
Sinatra in the recording studio provides a legacy that deserves nothing less.

So the maestro status of Jack Everly is extended this weekend with four "Sinatra Tribute" shows at Hilbert Circle Theatre, two of which remain. As Everly said near the start of Friday night's concert, the Rat Pack image of the most influential American pop singer of the 20th century "is just the surface."

In his spoken commentary, the conductor wasted little time in biographical matters. It was gratifying that he mentioned one pertinent fact: Sinatra's milestone departure from employment by Tommy Dorsey to go out on his own was announced in a broadcast from the Circle Theatre in September 1942.

Sinatra's career as a solo act thrived for a while on a tide of bobbysoxer enthusiasm, but dived notably around 1950 until remarkable success in movies set him on the comeback road. One of those films came up in Everly's podium remarks, but properly the focus was on the recordings and concerts, chiefly from the Capitol and Reprise years and the Las Vegas heyday.

Jack Everly: Master of the revels.
The film was "Guys and Dolls," the 1955 cinematic version of the Frank Loesser stage musical. A guffaw from the audience when Everly mentioned one of Sinatra's co-stars indicates how much the icon of the Great American Songbook is indelibly a classical artist. Besides Marlon Brando, Sinatra did "Guys and Dolls" with the gorgeous Jean Simmons. The name, of course, sounds like "Gene Simmons," Kiss frontman with the prehensile tongue. You can readily see the jarring cultural disparity here.

The ISO enjoys the services for this show of three competent singers who, of course, may not have the Sinatra charisma but on opening night exerted plenty of stage appeal on their own. Frankie Moreno's first appearance, with "It Had to Be You," was a little pallid, as his top notes didn't have the bloom of the Master.

Later he more than made up for this, with "Let's Face the Music and Dance" followed by "One for My Baby." The latter he identified as his favorite Sinatra song, and he sang it like he meant it, with poised, soulful piano support from Gary Walters. (It concludes Side 2 of my favorite Sinatra album, "Only the Lonely." Ol' Blue Eyes once told his simpatico arranger, Nelson Riddle, that he wanted "some Brahms in bar 8," and my guess is that you're hearing the result in the orchestral introduction to the title track.)

After intermission, Moreno showed his powerfully exhibitionistic piano chops in a duet with Tony DeSare on the old standard "All of Me." Two gentleman songsters out on a spree at one keyboard had the capacity audience cheering. If this novelty act seemed a departure from the program's main focus, those of us with long memories probably recalled Sinatra's cameo appearance in Mike Todd's "Around the World in Eighty Days," as a saloon pianist who turns around just long enough to flash the most famous 1950s grin after Eisenhower's.

Moreno was also the inevitable choice on this program to sing "That's Life," a credible venture by Sinatra to the edge of rhythm 'n' blues. In place of the funky organ and background vocals in the original, Moreno pulled out a harmonica and nailed a blues chorus, complete with Elvis-like leg spasms. The whole package suited the song's insouciant philosophy well.

DeSare's vocal instrument is more classically crooner, and he used it stunningly in "It Was a Very Good Year" and "I Have Dreamed," set to wonderful arrangements by Gordon Jenkins and Riddle, respectively.  The orchestra played these, and everything else, marvelously.

Liz Callaway, the third guest vocalist, held the audience spellbound in "Time After Time," featuring a limpid fluegelhorn solo by Joey Tartell. She blended hand-in-glove with DeSare in the classic Sinatra duet, "Something Stupid."

The Theme from "New York, New York" was predictably in evidence at front and back ends of the show. A medley titled "Frank and the Pack" closed the printed program with all three singers hard at work, folding in snippets of such Sinatra hits as "Come Fly With Me," "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "The Best Is Yet to Come." The Chairman of the Board was clearly calling the meeting to order.

Oh, and that Circle Theatre departure from Tommy Dorsey that Everly alluded to? Sinatra's farewell performance with the band before he passed the torch on-air to Dick Haymes was "The Song Is You."

 In this centennial tribute program, Everly and the ISO extend to their audiences a spiffy reminder about Sinatra's place in popular culture: The song was he — or, less formally and perhaps after a few drinks — the song was him.

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