Dame Cleo Laine has an amazing vocal range. She goes from full, rich alto to ethereal soprano and back again in effortless leaps. Even when improvising, she hits her notes smack on, no hesitation, no out-of-tune forays, no dead-end tangents.
The woman is a singular talent.Laine and her husband, bandleader and saxophone player John Dankworth, combined their jazz combo with the Utah Symphony Friday, and the results were entertaining and musically satisfying.
Laine is now in her eighth decade of life, but no resting on laurels for her. Too many older performers who have proved themselves in earlier eras go on the pops concert circuit and basically coast on their reputations. Laine is their antithesis.
The concert, which will be repeated Saturday, was nominally a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, but what it was in reality was a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald through the unmistakable filter of Cleo Laine. Laine's musical presence is such that she could never wholly submerge herself into another's music.
Most of the pieces werestandards originating with or made famous by Fitzgerald: "A Tisket, a Tasket," "I Thought About You," "I've Got a Crush on You."
Those songs, which have been played and sung a million times before, may have been less than interesting in the hands of another, but Laine made them fresh. While she has dabbled in other genres, she is above all a jazz singer, and as such she experiments, improvises,changes pieces, explores new musical ground. One doesn't normally go to Utah Symphony concerts expecting a set ofbracing jazz numbers, but that's what the audience got Friday.
The solos, both vocal and instrumental, were complex and melodic. Most notably, Laine and Dankworth occasionally did duets in unison, standing together at the front of the stage performing rapid riffs and arpeggios from the very lowest registers to the very highest with nary a note separating the two.
Both had infectiously bouyant good spirits. They had fun, and the orchestra and audience had fun with them. During a few pops concerts this year one could see orchestra members nodding off (during one concert, one musician fanned himself with his music throughout). Friday the orchestra members were smiling and moving their heads to the music.
Instead of being reduced to mere accompaniment, the orchestra was an integral part of the concert, making "Ode to Old New York" lush and layered and helping jazz up "How High the Moon" ("the be-boppers' national anthem," Laine said).
Laine told a bit of Fitzgerald's history between songs - being discovered at an Apollo Theater talent contest, initially preferring dancing to singing, her long relationship with Duke Ellington.
She also told stories about herself, such as how one sideman took a leave of absence and never came back - one Dudley Moore.