Jazz vocalist Denzal Sinclaire held the attention of the orchestra audience for both his Nat King Cole repertoire and other songs. ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Jazz vocalist Denzal Sinclaire held the attention of the orchestra audience for both his Nat King Cole repertoire and other songs. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Denzal Sinclaire Sings the Nat King Cole Songbook and More with the NAC Orchestra
NAC Southam Hall
Thursday, February 20, 2014 – 8 p.m.

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As a singer, Nat King Cole was known for his personal warmth and sincerity. He wasn't hip, or arch, or trying to appeal to the in-crowd – he sang simply and naturally.

Those same qualities were in the foreground as Canadian jazz vocalist Denzal Sinclaire, together with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, paid tribute to Cole. The Thursday evening concert was the first of a three-night run, and will repeat on Friday and Saturday.

Performing to a mostly-full house, Sinclaire was debonair and cordial, introducing the songs with informality and occasional humor. The first set was all-Nat-King-Cole, showing the late singer's range: from classics like “Nature Boy” to lesser-known ballads like “To the Ends of the Earth”; from up-tempo rousers like “Route 66” to the moving “Mona Lisa”.

And the audience greeted the music enthusiastically. Throughout, they were intently focused on the stage, and occasionally greeted songs with welcoming hand clapping. The applause after each song ranged from strong to very strong to heavy, and the concert ended with a standing ovation.

This was one of the Orchestra's regular Pops concerts, but it was led by guest conductor Jeff Tyzik, who also arranged all the music and selected the songs in conjunction with Sinclaire. Tyzik and Sinclaire have been molding this show for the last year, with three concerts in Western Canada in 2013, and more planned for the United States next year (the 50th anniversary of Cole's untimely death).

Jazz fans are used to listening to trios, quartets, and quintets. Occasionally they might hear a mini-big band (10-12 musicians) or even a full big band (17-25). But the NAC Orchestra lineup for its Fidelity Investments Pops concerts contains almost 60 musicians, more than half of whom play strings. It's a larger sound with a different emphasis.

The NAC did bring in several local jazz musicians who have played before with the orchestra: Mark Ferguson on piano, John Geggie on double bass, and Mike Tremblay on alto sax. Tyzik also included American drummer Dave Mancini, who has played with everyone from Doc Severinsen to Maynard Ferguson to Toshiko Akiyoshi.

The sound was carefully-modulated, and in general presented the music well. However, the relative loudness of the orchestra, or perhaps inadequate amplification on Sinclaire's mic, occasionally rendered some of his phrases inaudible, particularly in the first two songs.

The show began on with a jazzy production number, “Day In, Day Out”. Sinclaire's seemingly-effortless rolling out of the lyrics was underscored by strong brass notes, and with the drums emphasizing the “oceans roar” line. In the upbeat “Walking My Baby Back Home”, he used both his face and voice to express the joy of the music, and emphasized points in the song with hand gestures – as he did throughout the show. The ballads “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy” allowed the strings to come to the fore, with Sinclaire delivering the lyrics simply and sincerely. Both the instrumentals and the vocals felt surprisingly intimate given the large-scale production.

“(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” can be played wild or swinging: this was a more swinging version, with lots of brass from the orchestra, a fast hard solo on trumpet from Tyzik, as well as hard-hitting solos on sax and piano. Sinclaire introduced it with a short, syncopated section on melodica, and then followed up by singing in a similar style, for a highly enjoyable number.

Sinclaire introduced “Smile” by putting his cellphone to the vocal mic, and playing a short excerpt from a male aria from Puccini's Tosca. Don't you think Charlie Chaplin was inspired by that? he asked the audience, and, in fact, the resemblance was noticeable. His understated and hopeful reading of the lyrics was echoed partway through by an expressive and lovely violin solo by acting concertmaster Noémi Racine Gaudreault, something you would rarely hear in a straight jazz concert. It was a beautiful rendition that brought the song to life.

“To the Ends of the Earth” was given a very dramatic treatment, perhaps more than this rather slight song deserves, ending in an orchestral fanfare. “Straighten Out and Fly Right” featured just Sinclaire with the jazz trio (Ferguson, Geggie, and Mancini). It was a joyful interpretation with fast, bright piano and cymbals, and Sinclaire on bluesy melodica, which, unsurprisingly, he played exactly and well, given that he is as much a pianist as vocalist in his jazz career. He ended the number with a run and high jump to the right of the stage, a last tribute to the song's energy.

“When I Fall in Love” was delivered in a conversational style, emphasizing the song's message as much as its tune, and ending in a long drawn-out note. “L-O-V-E” was a crowd-pleaser to end the set, a classic crooner tune with a strong finale from the orchestra.

The second set commenced with two instrumental numbers, both jazz classics by Duke Ellington but arranged innovatively by Tyzik. “Caravan” gave a platform for Mancini in particular to experiment with more interrupted percussion; while the Oriental-style melody remained, his complicated rhythms and the sweep of the strings added a new aspect to this well-known number.

Tyzik explained to the audience that he had reverted to Ellington's original arrangement for “Satin Doll”. Compared to the better-known version, this was less stylized and looser but equally enjoyable, with repeated accents on piano and brass, and the melody provided mostly by the strings rather than horns.

The remaining numbers of the night were Sinclaire's choices, from a wide variety of genres, starting with “Amazing Grace”. Sinclaire began it a cappella, his deep baritone encompassing the majesty and God-given grace of the hymn. Partway through, Leah Wyber joined in on cello, echoing the melody with tenderness and richness, and they ended together. The heartfelt performance by both was a highlight of the evening.

Sinclaire played guitar on the next piece: “I’m Getting Ready”, a recent piece by UK singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. A sensitive love song, it was delivered straight, with light strings and piano filling in the edges. “Follow You, Follow Me”, a 70s hit by the rock band Genesis, was a less-obvious choice, but its romantic, heartfelt vibe, in fact, fit the programme very well, although its lyrics were a bit repetitive.

The Cole Porter standard, “You and the Night and the Music”, was one Sinclaire has played for years and included on his second album. The muted drama of its melody and lyrics allow a lot of room for interpretation: Sinclaire started this piece on melodica underlaid by strings, and then understatedly delivered the lyrics with his supple voice. He switched between melodica and vocals throughout the song, a combination which enhanced the impact of the melody and the song's subtle rhythms. It was a beautiful and memorable rendition.

“Always on My Mind”, which has been a hit for singers ranging from Willie Nelson to the Pet Shop Boys, is well enough known that its first few notes were greeted by quick applause. But Sinclaire made the ballad sound fresh, singing it without affectation. There's always a risk of this song sounding a bit too sentimental, especially with the strong strings section, but Tyzik nicely avoided that by including a clear, expressive sax solo by Mike Tremblay partway through, which sharpened the sad melody.

The Judy Garland hit, “This Is My Lucky Day”, featured just Sinclaire and the jazz trio celebrating the upbeat tune, with a sparkling piano solo from Ferguson and lots of hand claps from Sinclaire - inspiring audience participation, too.

“I’ve Got the World on a String” started with an orchestral fanfare, and remained full-out big band for the whole number, while still allowing Sinclaire to have a great time joyfully singing the lyrics. It was greeted with heavy applause and then a standing ovation – and then the orchestra jumped into a number not on the programme, but perfectly suited: Nat King Cole's 1951 hit, “Unforgettable”. Sinclaire sang the love song with feeling and depth, underlaid with strings, and the audience responded with another standing ovation.

The NACO Pops concert was a well-organized evening of classic material, delivered by all the musicians with verve and feeling. It clearly connected with the audience, both those from Nat King Cole's generation, and those born much later.

    – Alayne McGregor


Set 1:

  • Day In, Day Out
  • Walkin’ My Baby Back Home
  • Mona Lisa
  • Nature Boy
  • Route 66
  • Smile
  • To the Ends of the Earth\
  • Straighten Up and Fly Right
  • When I Fall in Love
  • L-O-V-E

Set 2:

  • Caravan
  • Satin Doll
  • Amazing Grace
  • I’m Getting Ready (Michael Kiwanuka)
  • Follow You, Follow Me (Genesis)
  • You and the Night and the Music
  • Always on My Mind
  • This Is My Lucky Day
  • I’ve Got the World on a String
  • Unforgettable

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