The NSO Pops presented its first-ever collaboration with superstar Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds on Friday night for a two-night run in the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center. Under the musical direction of Tim Davies, eclectic orchestrator extraordinaire, the evening was “surreal” in Edmonds’s own words, in listening pleasure and feel-good enjoyment. Presenting a unique fusion of orchestral, contemporary R&B, pop, funk, jazz, and new jack swing, the concert was an unforgettable journey through the prolific music career of an 11-time Grammy winner that was full of musical surprises.
The Show Choir of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts opened with a medley of Babyface love tunes, previewing what was to come. And when many of the songs are older than the young people singing them, but are still cherished and loved by them, you know you have the makings of music for all time. There’s also something especially endearing about young folks singing love songs that speak to the innocence that only the untested in love can project. So, the Show Choir was the perfect opening act for a Babyface concert.
“Will You Be There? / Earth Song / Heal the World” was a medley of Michael Jackson tunes written by Babyface that highlighted the singing talent and star-quality showmanship of the 20-member Show Choir. The ensemble’s outstanding male and female soloists showcased amazingly mature vocals for kids still in their teens.
Babyface has collaborated with and written songs for many celebrated performers during his musical career that began when he was still in high school back in Indianapolis. Capturing his star and shining it with sheer exuberance, the Show Choir strutted their stuff on “Count on Me,” a tune that topped the charts for Whitney Houston. “Water Runs Dry” featured a male quartet from the group with four-part harmonies that would give “Boyz II Men” a run for their money.
Ending their opening act with “You’re All I Need,” an oldie by famed singing duet Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, the Show Choir was way more than a high school glee club, but rather an ensemble of stars-in-the-making who brought an adoring audience to its feet.
Prolific songwriter, singer, musician, producer, actor, and entrepreneur, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds has been a dynamic and influential force on the urban contemporary music scene since the early ‘80s. But he keeps reinventing himself and getting wider reception on collaborative projects having written and produced for musical luminaries such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Pink, Madonna, Celine Dion, Jennifer Hudson, and Eric Clapton, among many others too numerous to mention.
Edmonds’s first-time collaboration with the NSO Pops was a smashing success, and under Tim Davies’s first-time direction of the NSO Pops, they teamed up to create an evening of music that was uniquely brilliant, fusing musical genres with creative artistry, exceptional NSO Pops musicianship, and just plain feel-good music.
I was expecting an evening with Babyface mostly perched on a stool singing the slow-burn, mellow love ballads with those honeyed tenor vocals he’s become famous for. But I was completely surprised and taken off guard by the excitement and the high energy he infused into what could have been an enjoyable night of smooth love songs to hear sitting by a fireside. Edmonds came to have a good time and he let the audience know he expected them to feel good, too.
Babyface grooved to his own music, dancing and at times running across the stage as if in romantic ecstasy. He was joined center stage by two of his own top-flight backup musicians on guitar (Michael “Nomad” Ripoll) and sax/flugelhorn (Andre Delano) and an absolutely show-stopping male backup singer (Stefano Langone). Also providing crucial accompaniment were Walter Barnes on bass guitar and upright bass, Clifton Williams on keyboards, and Reggie Johnson on drums.
The lyrics and the melodies of Babyface’s music melt right into the heart with nostalgic glimpses that touch us in those deep emotional places. This is what makes his music so relatable. He creates music where love takes flight then sometimes lands on an empty field only to revive itself in new flights of fancy.
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds still projects the shy young man from Indiana who expressed his innermost feelings through song-writing. And even at 59 years of age, “ Babyface,” who was given that name by funk performer Bootsy Collins because of his eternally youthful face, is still telling every man’s story of love and longing. It’s rapturously romantic music to an urban, funky beat.
Tim Davies’s lush and sweeping orchestral arrangements put a cleverly entertaining spin on the musical compositions. For example, I was pleasantly surprised to hear crash cymbals and Edmonds strumming folk guitar to the sweeping tremolo of the violins, all at the same time, to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” And it worked!
It was hard to contain oneself from singing along to Babyface’s well-known lyrics, and the audience didn’t! “Cool,” “Every Time,” “Whip Appeal,” “The Day,” “Breathe Again,” “How Could an Angel,” and “Take a Bow,” among others, took us through a musical voyage of Kenny Edmonds’s stellar musical career.
Babyface has written more than 200 top ten R&B hits and more than 50 top ten pop hits, for himself and others, with 16 of his songs reaching number one. So, I am sure it was hard to choose what to perform for his inaugural concert with the NSO Pops.
But a medley of his most well-known and most loved ballads worked just fine with songs such as “Two Occasions,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Every Little Step,” “Tender Roni,” “Ready or Not,” and “I’ll Make Love to You”, another Boyz II Men super chart-topper. The playlist filled the bill and then some for an incredible evening of song.
The final surprise of the evening was when Babyface whipped the audience into an absolute frenzy when he jumped off the stage and ran through the concert hall singing his heart out to the final tune before returning to the stage, dropping to his knees on the last lines of his Boys II Men smash hit, “End of the Road.”
In an encore, the sweet, slow strains of Edmonds playing solo folk guitar on “When Can I See You Again” was a memorial tribute to his mom who must be looking down feeling very proud of a son who has forever changed the world of music.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
The NSO Pops with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds played at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall on January 19 – 20, 2018. For tickets to other Kennedy Center events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.