5/28/16 – RPO’s “A Night at the Cotton Club II”

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra took the audience to the legendary Cotton Club, a place where African-American performers took the standards of the day, and sang it with blues, soul, and gospel touches, birthing the jazz we know today.

5/28/16 – RPO’s “A Night at the Cotton Club II”

“This is huge fun.”

While I can’t take credit for this quote, as it was uttered by an audience member during intermission, I can’t think of a better summation for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s “A Night at the Cotton Club II.”

The RPO was joined by long time friend of Pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, Byron Stripling on vocals and trumpet, singer Miche Braden, and tap dancer and singer Ted Louis Levy, for a show that paid homage to the legendary New York City after hours jazz club, the Cotton Club. In the 20’s through the 40’s, the all-white audience would listen to black performers putting their own spin on pop standards of the day, bringing the sound of the blues and soul to the more uptight sound of pop. Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington were the house bands, and many legends had early gigs at the Club. The RPO continued this tradition by making these their own as well, and truly performed for the audience.

This was one of those shows that gave me a big, silly grin from the first tune all the way through the last, and had been swinging, snapping, and humming all the way home. Harkening back to a time when jazz and the blues were more connected, and the musicians was less self-indulgent, and were focusing on entertaining the audience.

There were many highlights in the show, and I have to try and refrain from reciting too many of the jokes and exchanges between the performers; the spontaneity and surprise made it special. I knew it was coming, having done the preview, but I very much enjoyed the subtle and sly “adult humor” and the sultriness of Braden. I thought it was all very genuine, especially with the performers saying “here at the Cotton Club” throughout the show.

On the whole, I was very impressed by Tyzik’s arrangements. A full orchestra with strings wouldn’t be seen at the Cotton Club, but Tyzik managed to meld the blues sounds with the orchestra in a way that was equally respectful and of the time, while injecting elements of more modern jazz pop and big band. He, nor any of the other performers didn’t fall into the trap of staying too much in character or stuck in the past, playing through more recognizable standards like “I Got Rhythm,” “Stormy Weather,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” as well as some of the older pop standards such as “Bill Bailey,” and humorous tunes of “Minnie the Moocher,” and “Your Feet’s To Big.”

Stripling, Braden, and Levy all managed to perform in the style, pay homage to the greats, all while keeping their own personality and letting it project with the audience. Yes, Braden and Stripling would quote the style and mannerisms of Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Louis Armstrong, and seeing Levy dance was shockingly reminiscent of his mentors the Hines Brothers, and his song was Calloway with a contemporary R&B flavor. I was floored at how musical his solo tap was; I could absolutely hear the jazz improvisation, and he took it a step further my scatting along with his tap in the final number.

I’ve never seen the RPO have so much fun, or the audience, who got the chance to participate. This is a perfect show to introduce yourself to jazz, and get an absolute kick out of performance.

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