Having been a fan of Diane Schuur’s since college, I was excited to have the opportunity finally to see her in concert. In fact, the sense of excitement was palpable throughout the audience. I met several people who have made the final performance of the year for the “Jazz at The Kennedy Center” series their New Year’s Eve tradition for years. And we were not disappointed. From the moment Ms. Schuur stepped out on stage in a sparkly black pantsuit and matching sequined sunglasses (Schuur has been blind since birth), she had the audience firmly in the palm of her hand.
Accompanied by her band – Alan Broadbent on piano and conducting, Roni Ben-Hur on guitar, Ben Wolfe on stand-up bass, Ulysses Owens, Jr. on drums, and Joel Frahm on saxophone – Ms. Schuur piloted the audience through a program of jazz and pop standards. As an added enhancement, the band was backed for several songs by a 20-piece string ensemble. The subtitle of the concert was Celebrating Sinatra’s Centenary, and while all the songs were one that Sinatra had recorded, the band put their own particular stamp on each one. Their performance had the tightness of a group that has worked together for a long time and trusts one another implicitly, but never lost a cool, improvisational feel. Mr. Broadbent is an outstanding conductor and was able to manage all of the transitions within and between pieces seamlessly from behind his piano.
While Ms. Schuur’s band is uniformly excellent, a particular standout for me was sax player Joel Frahm. He had a particularly fluid style infused with fun and humor. He frequently threw a familiar television or movie theme into the middle of an unrelated song so quickly and seemingly effortlessly that he was typically back onto the main melody before your brain had a chance to process what he’d done. This resulted in several delighted, if slightly delayed laughs from the audience (and even the string section, as they recognized what he’d played. I caught Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sanford and Son, The Brady Bunch, The Munsters, and What’s Happenin’, but I’m sure there were more.
Ms. Schuur herself was a revelation. If possible, she is more compelling musically in person than in her recordings. She has an impressive vocal range that runs from mezzo-soprano to baritenor with occasional excursions into high C and D territory. Her fluid runs matched with her crisp diction and expert scatting made every song a delight. She started off with “S’Wonderful” and ended on “The Very Thought of You,” alone at the piano, with the band and strings watching raptly from upstage. During the ninety minutes in between, selections included “Didn’t We,” “The Second Time Around,” “Watch What Happens,” and “Here’s That Rainy Day,” which featured an extended call-and-response duet between Ms. Schuur and saxophonist Frahm.
If asked for my favorite song of the night, the pinnacle would have to be an arrangement of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” that segued completely unexpectedly into “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” and then circled back to the original song. There was a perceptible silence after the final chord before the audience burst into applause. Overall, a wonderful way to start my New Year’s celebration!
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
A Jazz New Year’s Eve: Diane Schuur and Strings was performed on December 31, 2015 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future Kennedy Center events, go to their calendar of events.