By Iris Wiener
With a flash, bam, alakazam, a wonderful tribute to Nat King Cole was given on February 8th when The New York Pops paid tribute to the timeless artist’s centennial with Unforgettable: Celebrating Nat King Cole and Friends at Carnegie Hall. Led by Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke, the show featured more than twenty of Cole’s greatest pieces, as well as collaborations that were made famous with the King Cole Trio.
Reineke added a connective touch to the evening as he introduced each of Cole’s pieces with a nugget of backstory, beginning with Cole’s decision to drop out of school at 15 to pursue music. After launching the evening with “One O’Clock Jump,” the orchestra welcomed singer Ryan Shaw (Motown the Musical) to bring wonder to “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Shaw, a three-time Grammy nominated musician, was making his debut with the Pops, and it was no surprise as to why he was chosen. His inflection, tone and versatility with the genre of jazz and soul were impeccable, and were an absolute delight for everyone in the room. In a special rendition of “Route 66,” arranged by Mark Taylor, Shaw’s vocals were as sharp as the red velvet shoes and silver jacket he adorned in the second half.
Before treating the audience (which, in a special surprise, included Cole’s daughter, Timolin) to the haunting and magnetic “Nature Boy,” Reineke spoke of Eden Ahbez asking a valet to give Cole the song he had penned, as he was unable to get close enough to the artist to do it himself. “The rest is history,” said Reineke, as Shaw took a sensational arrangement by Frank DeVol and imbibed its charismatic low notes with his sultry flair.
Nikki Renee Daniels (The Book of Mormon, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) also made her debut with the Pops, bringing her glowing sensibility and heart-stopping talent to “Orange Colored Sky” and Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.” Her “Embraceable You” was especially succinct, only complemented by the Pops’ string section, whose notes seemed to kiss its audience’s cheeks like wisps of clouds.
Other stand-out numbers included Starr’s take on the upbeat “Just in Time,” backed by a sensationally complex and seamless piano solo. In honoring Cole’s life, Starr said that he would be performing one of Cole’s most poignant songs; thus, with an original arrangement and orchestrations by Adam Podd, he simultaneously brought a grin and a tear to every face at Carnegie Hall with “Smile.” Daniels performed many songs that had been influential in her own childhood, including “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” in which her range was so open and clear that it seemed she hit every note in existence.
The Pops took audiences through Cole’s songbook with a special medley arranged and orchestrated by Matt Podd that included “Mona Lisa,” “The Christmas Song” and “Sweet Lorraine.” The medley concluded with “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer,” which the Pops imbibed with a peppy jauntiness and intensity that only increased as the tune unfolded.
Perhaps the most breath-taking moments of the evening were those in which Daniels and Shaw came together for duets. They closed out the show with spellbinding versions of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Can’t Be Love” arranged by Chris Jahnke, but it was their “Unforgettable” that lived up to its hit-making name. Their voices seem to have been created to co-exist, with epically eloquent and perfunctory harmonies. After experiencing the Pops’ sensational encore, “L-O-V-E,” it was unquestionable as to why Cole’s music will be celebrated for hundreds of years to come.
Photos: Genevieve Rafter Keddy (on stage)
Photos: Magda Katz (backstage)
The New York Pops, under the direction of conductor Steven Reineke, continues on March 15 with Movie Mixtape: Songs from the Silver Screen featuring Mykal Kilgore, Storm Large, Ashley Park, and Ryan Silverman