It was a night of dazzling music that will be long remembered by those fortunate enough to attend one of the three dazzling performances with which the Houston Symphony closed out “leap weekend” at the end of February in this Leap Year 2016. Presented in Houston’s Jones Hall, the amazing concert was titled, “The Best of Benny Goodman,” and must have had the late Big Band leader smiling down from up above as brilliant clarinet virtuoso, Dave Bennett, brought us all of Goodman’s astonishing brilliance, and perhaps a good deal more. Adding polish to the memorable occasion were the marvelous talents of the five other members of Mr. Bennett’s featured sextet, Carol McCartney on vocals, Tad Weed on piano, arranger, Paul Keller on bass, Pete Siers on drums and Hugh Leal on rhythm guitar. And if that was not enough musical excitement, the group was surrounded by our fabulous Houston Symphony under the baton of the ever-popular Michael Krajewski, Principal Pops Conductor. What a formula for success.
And success there would be as this peerless collection of musicians performed a concert featuring, as promised, The Best of Benny Goodman. What would be a smorgasbord of Goodman classics took off like a rocket with the thrilling rhythms of, “Let’s Dance.” With his plain metal rimmed glasses and a classic hairstyle that might have been plucked from a Van Heusen shirt model in the 1930’s or ‘40’s, the handsome Mr. Bennett, by accident or design, seemed to somehow resemble the late great musician he was celebrating. The music was as red-hot as the crimson lighting designs that were projected on the walls surrounding the orchestra. As the evening proceeded, those projections would sample all the colors of the rainbow. Next it was on to the snappy, “Bugle Call Rag.” A “Benny Goodman Medley” followed and featured such tunes as, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Poor Butterfly,” a warm and tender, “Moonglow,” and a sensational, “Avalon” full of ferocious attack.
Next, a glamorous and jazzy change of pace arrived in the person of Miss McCartney. Dressed in a smoky, sexy and multilayered charcoal gown, she delivered a sensational, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” She then saluted songstress Peggy Lee while singing, “These Foolish Things,” and really captured the song’s visual images with terrific vocal purity. Bennett closed Part One of the program with Mr. Keller’s remarkable arrangement of George & Ira Gershwin’s, “I Got Rhythm,” from the musical, Girl Crazy. The playful opening on clarinet soon accelerated to a maddening pace that had amazing precision in spite of its super-sonic (and super-human) velocity. Mr. Bennett’s fellow musicians in the sextet each offered stellar solo turns during the number, and it was very appropriate that the intermission followed so the audience could recover from such an awe-inspiring display of musical brilliance.
Following that break it seemed a shame there was no dance floor as audience toes were tapping throughout the room during a rhythmic and thrilling, “Air Mail Special,” which again featured star solo moments from members of the sextet. A sciatica sufferer, Goodman must have had tongue-in-cheek when he composed the next number, “Slipped Disc.” The orchestra’s percussion section had fun producing skeletal images via vibes and xylophone, and there were wonderful moments from Keller on bass and Mr. Leal on rhythm guitar. McCartney then returned in a lush and shimmering satin gown the color of a fine red wine. It was as elegant as her voice during the Johnny Mercer tune, “And the Angels Sing.” A sassy, “Blues in the Night,” was the second Mercer tune for Miss McCartney. Bennett jumped aboard with thrilling variations on clarinet as projections of a starry sky and full moon embraced the dark blue lighting that surrounded the stage. Completing a trifecta of Johnny Mercer songs, McCartney supplied perky fun as she then paired with Bennett for Goodman’s 1936 hit, “Goody, Goody,” and the full orchestra brought it to perfection.
The closing numbers on the program were no less marvelous than those that went before. A highlight of the Big Band era, Louis Prima’s classic, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” continued as a galloping thriller in the hands of these brilliant musicians, with the claves gently clicking in the background. Bennett owned the stage as he wove his magic on clarinet, frenzy one moment, gentle lulls falling to a whisper the next, until we feel we are hearing some exotic bird in a distant forest. Of course Mr. Siers was fully up to the task of this number’s legendary tour de force for drums. But perhaps the surprise of the night was when Bennett put down his clarinet and took up a pair of drumsticks to duet with Siers on drums with such incredible skill that the two appeared almost as one during this exciting and much extended segment. The roaring and much-deserved standing ovation that followed would soon be rewarded with a joyous encore of, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The appreciative and hand-clapping crowd was happy to join in on the vocal.