A panoply of performers graced the stage last night to honor the extraordinary musician, composer, and civil rights activist Nat King Cole, who would have been 100 years old this past March 17. Conductor Michael Butterman and Music Director and Grammy Award-winning drummer Terri Lynne Carrington harnessed the talents of singers Patti Austin, Eric Benét, Freddy Cole, Dulé Hill, and BeBe Winans to showcase Cole’s iconic tunes with innovative musical arrangements as a montage of images of Cole, members of his famous trio, and his wife and family appeared on a back screen.
The evening opened with Butterman leading the National Symphony Orchestra through a medley of Cole’s signature tunes: “Embraceable You,” “When I Fall in Love,” and “Bop-Kick.” A quartet comprised of Carrington on drums, pianist Eric Reed, Mark Whitfield on guitar, and Ben Williams on bass launched into high gear on “Bop-Kick” and set the mood for a memorable evening and reminded the audience of Cole’s hard-bop jazz roots.
At eighty-eight years old and still performing despite being wheelchair-bound, Cole’s brother, Freddy Cole, delivered a popular Cole tune “This Can’t Be Love.” Despite moments when Freddy Cole’s voice broke through, for the most part the orchestra drowned him out. But he commanded the audience to their feet during the second half of the show in “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”
The first half of the show remained plagued by poor mic amplification for the vocalists. But the sound quality improved during the second half of the show allowing Benét’s low and high notes to fill the concert hall when he and Hill, who tap-danced, delivered “Just in Time.” (Hill will perform again in the show on October 19, 2019). Hill’s percussive tapping complimented Benét’s steady singing. Hill and Carrington trading eights during “Just in Time” became the highlight of this performance.
Perhaps the voice that matches Cole’s the most is that of gospel singer BeBe Winans. Despite moments of sheer magic in Winan’s cover of “Nature Boy” and Mona Lisa,” his lack of comfort with the orchestra and conductor marred his performance so much that he kept his body angled at the audience during “Nature Boy,” perhaps to keep a better eye on the conductor.
Yet, Winans redeemed himself when he and Austin stole everyone’s heart with their rendition of one of Cole’s most memorable songs, “Unforgettable.” The arrangement remained solidly grounded in a familiar tempo, but the ending added a jazzier quality and highlighted the chemistry between Austin and Winans with their playful vocal bantering. We can only hope that Austin and Winans hit the studio and record this duet.
Nat King Cole at 100 shakes the dust from your memory or introduces you to the historical significance of Cole as a trailblazer who integrated white spaces, funded civil rights activities, and became the first African American to host a nationally televised variety show, “The Nat King Cole Show,” in 1956. This tribute to Cole at the Kennedy Center is both an aural and visual experience as image after image is projected onto a back screen to compliment not only the musical performances but also the snatches of history offered by the musicians.
Some singers and performers remain so iconic that they emblazon a pervasive memory that levies a certain expectation when others perform their music. When the expectation is met, the audience cheers and leaves the concert hall satisfied.
When the performance falls short of the expectation, and particularly on opening night, you hope that the musicians and conductors heard what you heard and hit the rehearsal room before the next show. It is no small feat to assemble such an array of vocalists with an orchestra and pull off a show without a hitch. Perhaps subsequent performances will render more cohesion, ease, and better sound. Nonetheless, music lovers and historians will appreciate the foresight that the NSO programmers had to honor Nat King Cole in this way, and they will find their way to the Kennedy Center for a performance of a lifetime.
Running time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
NSO Pops: Nat King Cole at 100 Starring Patti Austin, Eric Benét, Freddy Cole, Dulé Hill, BeBe Winans & more plays through October 19, 2019, at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or go online.