It was supposed to be a salute to the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
But the most honor-worthy aspect of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s pops concert at Bass Hall on Friday, “The Sounds of New Orleans: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong,” was the tremendous range of talent displayed by guest artist Byron Stripling. The former lead trumpet for the Count Basie Orchestra played his instrument (superbly), sang, told jokes and generally worked the room in a continuously entertaining performance.
Stripling and orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Stuart Chafetz, opened the performance with a medley of New Orleans jazz tunes that allowed Stripling to make an early, impressive statement with his horn — which we heard in all its unamplified glory as Stripling’s flawless ribbons of sound embraced Bass Hall’s acoustic perfection like a lover.
That medley was a sign of things to come, as was the robust accompaniment from the orchestra. In some pops concerts, the symphony players are simply well-dressed, innocent bystanders. But in this performance, they were equal partners with the headliner. The brass and percussion were predictably a bit dominant on some numbers. But there were also significant contributions from every section of the orchestra on almost every tune.
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Stripling played his vocals card in Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? He sounded great, but he was also playing us a bit. We got just the tip of the iceberg in this slow, bluesy ballad. Later, he would really show us what he could do with his pipes.
Between numbers, Stripling the standup comedian emerged. He took the baton and comically offered Chafetz pointers on conducting, tried to convince the audience that his name was Wynton Marsalis and, for some reason, made wicked fun of Abilene at every opportunity. At one point, he tried to help any patrons from that city to the west by identifying the instruments of the orchestra, and noting that the piano “may be the biggest thing you have ever seen without ‘John Deere’ on it.”
Nobody from Abliene laughed at that one (but the rest of us did).
But his funniest bit was a brilliant parody of Delta blues singers who slur their lyrics beyond recognition. After invoking the memory of the fortunately fictitious “Blind Lemon Chitlin” as a source, Stripling hilariously skewered the singing style that put North Mississippi on the map, and promised that, unlike with Chitlin, every word he sang would be perfectly clear. He then proceeded to include a heaping helping of incomprehensible scat singing in most of the show’s remaining numbers.
Everything the strapping Stripling played and sang was impressive, but perhaps the most memorable portion of his endlessly fun concert was a long, rambling rendition of Flat Foot Floogie, in which he played, sang, scatted and then flew off into an absurd flight of vocalistic fancy that included an impression of opera singers doing Nessun Dorma, a German soprano and, of course, a lengthy rap based on the conductor’s last name. It was amazingly deft and hysterically funny.
The concert closed with a medley that was the evening’s most direct nod to Armstrong’s memory (a few of the show’s previous numbers were identified as being associated with Armstrong). It featured the usual suspects such as Hello Dolly and What a Wonderful World, which Stripling performed in his own voice, rather than mimicking Armstrong’s distinctive vocals — as he did on a lyric here and there throughout the show.
On the whole, Stripling, Chafetz and the orchestra delivered one of the most engaging and enjoyable pops concerts Bass Hall has seen in some time. Stripling performed with the symphony in its Concerts in the Garden series in 2012, but Friday marked the Bass Hall debut for this well-traveled and justly lauded entertainer. Here’s hoping they bring him back (but don’t tell anybody from Abilene if they do).
Fort Worth Symphony
The Sounds of New Orleans: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong
- 7:30 Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
- Bass Hall
- $30-$85. 817-665-6000; fwsymphony.org