Review: ‘NSO Pops: Sophisticated Ladies: 100 Years of Ella & Company’ at The Kennedy Center 

Acclaimed vocalists Capathia Jenkins, Sy Smith and Montego Glover joyously hopped the A train to Harlem along with the NSO Pops in tribute to the Queen of Jazz in Sophisticated Ladies: 100 Years of Ella & Company. This year marks Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday and conductor Steven Reineke’s brilliant creation to honor the First Lady of Song  transported you back  to the Big Band sound  of  the Harlem Renaissance  in a fascinatin’ rhythmic ride of songs popularized by the legendary Lady Ella.

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Regarded by some as the greatest jazz singer of all time, Ella Fitzgerald made famous some of the best jazz standards ever sung. Her musical contributions changed the landscape of America’s cultural heritage forever. Timeless music endures because it deepens the human experience through mood melodies and message-laden lyrics that go beyond time and space. Sophisticated Ladies: 100 Years of Ella & Company gloriously sings Ella’s praises and  the Great American Songbook featuring the works of George and Ira Gershwin, Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Johnny  Mercer, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, Nelson Riddle and more, in unforgettable Songs of the Century .

Sophisticated Ladies: 100 Years of Ella & Company evoked alluring images of the Savoy Ballroom and Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club. Capathia Jenkins’s beautiful silky voice re-imagined Harlem’s glamorous nightlife on songs such as “Strike up the Band,” “Clap Yo Hands,” “Love Is Here to Stay,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and “Summertime.” Astoundingly sounding a lot like Ella in clarity, precise diction, intonation and phrasing, Jenkins is a remarkable concert artist who has sung with the best symphonic orchestras nationally and internationally as well as acted in first-run productions on and off-Broadway. What joy it was to hear this woman sing.

And what could be more Ella than Sy Smith scatting be-bop like Minnie the Moocher on “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” with the audience along for the ride in fun singalong? Sy’s dramatic rendition of “Stormy Weather” featured the NSO Pop’s strong string section and an incredible trumpet solo. Her sweeping natural vibrato swelled to higher and higher heights on this beloved classic popularized by Lena Horne back in the day.

The entire NSO horn section was prominent on Sy’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and the swing era was in full effect in a quick pick-up pace that also showcased terrific guitar and drum solos. Sy’s “One for the Road” had a neo-soul quality fusing gospel with R&B, solely accompanied by pianist Tony Knoller’s fine keyboards. Her bewitching performance on this song conjured up images of a smoky nightclub where we might imagine Frank Sinatra closing the bar in the wee hours. Singer, songwriter and producer, Sy Smith has pioneered her gorgeous, strong vocals into becoming a staple on the underground soul scene, and her sassy delivery is sophisticated yet fresh, brash and fearlessly bold.

Billie, Dinah and Sarah all sang at the Savoy Ballroom and Montego Glover flooded the atmosphere with the glamor and excitement of this dynamic trio, memorializing a glorious time in American music on “You Go to My Head.” Montego’s Broadway roots captured Ella’s sense of whimsy on “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” with the woodwinds leading the Big Band sound of this peppy love tune. Montego milks a song to the very last note and her scats on this tune imitated the unique gifts of Ella Fitzgerald to mimic the horns.

Hot, steamy and big voiced, Montego Glover raised the roof on her jaw-dropping performance on “Come Rain or Come Shine”. Her breath control was amazing on this song and it felt like she held that last note for an eternity which brought the audience to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. She sang “The Best Is Yet to Come”, another Frank Sinatra keepsake, to a Quincy Jones arrangement. With Broadway cred and showstopper appeal, Montego Glover delivered Billie Holliday’s “God Bless the Child” with the fervor of this jazz icon in living testament to the power of song. Steven Reineke’s arrangement featured a trumpet solo as did several songs in this concert. Trumpet performance is home for Reineke and the infusion his favored instrument was a well-received bonus.

Speaking of Steven Reineke, to watch him is to see the joy of a man and his music. It’s obvious that Reineke loves his gig as Principal Conductor of the NSO Pops. He leads this terrifically accomplished ensemble of musicians with delightful pep in his step. His positive energy enlivened this concert with heartfelt vim and vigor. Reineke’s footnotes to the audience gave historical context to many of the songs, adding an informative, elegant touch to the performances.

It would have been interesting, however, if the background of the Concert Hall stage had taken advantage of the perfect moment to project images of Harlem times and the urban village of New York City from that era. Instead, the backdrop was a colorful but nondescript kaleidoscope of shapes and patterns. Graphic images from the Harlem Renaissance might have added even greater context to the wonderful music.

The NSO performed three solo numbers, Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” in intro, the indomitable “Mack the Knife,” and “One o’clock Jump” that kept the joint jumpin’.  It felt as if the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center was a foot-stomping Lindy Hop fest of get-happy music.

The three Sophisticated Ladies graced the stage altogether on the last song of the evening, “Blues in the Night”, which soloed every section of the formidable NSO Pops in pick-up tempo to a smashing close. Back by popular demand, the trio encored on “Get Happy” in  a rousing, hand-clapping finale to a wonderfully entertaining evening of the finest in  American music.

Running Time:  Two hours including a 15-minute intermission

NSO Pops: Sophisticated Ladies: 100 Years of Ella & Company was performed on March 24, 2017, at 8pm in the Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. The concert will be repeated today, March 25, 2017 at 8 p.m. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or Toll-Free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat) of the U.S. Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University. Ramona is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.