Andrea and I went to see one of the National Arts Centre (NAC) Pops series last night entitled “Holiday Swing”. As the name suggests, it is a “swing” / big band version of Christmas music. While the series is almost always a good time, it is much improved when Jack Everly is conducting himself as opposed to designing the overall program for the year. Unfortunately, in that regard, it was not Jack, but Byron Stripling performing as conductor, trumpet, and vocals.
I confess that I’m not a big band aficionado, nor a jazz specialist, and was not familiar with Byron Stripling directly. You can see him online in a popular YouTube video:
His trumpet playing is awesome, but that’s about almost where the kudos end for the evening. The night was so inconsistent, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Overall, there were 14 songs during the night, and the NAC Orchestra was sitting twiddling their thumbs for far too much of the show. In addition to Stripling, jazz pianist/organist Bobby Floyd was joining the orchestra for the evening and his talent is made obvious by his long jams, improvisation and complex mixes. And he’s fun to watch too…in the video below, jump to the 2m30 mark and see how animated his face is while planning. Last night, it was even more so…he reacts to every note.
But as great as he is, after an almost 10 minute solo jam, I was more than ready to see them move on. Later in the show, he did another long session in one of the songs, and again, while impressive, two minutes in and I was looking at my watch.
The group opened with What Child is This and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and while both were okay, they were not spectacular. Or maybe it was just that by the time Floyd finished, I had forgotten what came before. Enjoyable, sure; impressive, absolutely. Needed, no.
The third song, Blue Christmas, was divided into three sections, an opening that was mainly the trumpet, a middle section with Floyd highlighted on organ, and an ending with everyone (whole orchestra). The opening “third”, with just the trumpet, was freaking awesome. The song is MEANT to be “blue” / sad…and so many turn it into a content-less upbeat tempo. Stripling did it totally downbeat and blue, and as I said, did an amazing job.
Then we came to the fourth song. I Have A Little Dreidel. When I saw it on the program, I said to Andrea, “Well, that should be interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a jazz/big bang version of the Dreidel song.” I was not optimistic, but I thought, okay, it’s on the program, might be okay. And if it had been just a jazz-y / Big Bang version, and they moved on, I’d probably just think “meh”. But when he threw in a few scat verses, it went from “meh” to “WTF?”. It was ridiculous.
The fifth song was Angels We Have Heard On High. I was raised Catholic, and I never knew that the song had a different name than the tune underlying it (a hymn simply called Gloria…when I was growing up, I only ever saw it listed as Gloria in excelsis Deo – Glory to God in the Highest). It started fine, and then I have no idea where the song went. It was unrecognizable to me for a good portion of the version.
Silent Night was fine, and I was looking forward to the last song of the first half, Go Tell It On the Mountain. Stripling did the vocals, and it was just lacking some oomph. My impression of the song is that it works best as truly a “celebratory” song — it should be practically raising the roof, literally singing it out on the mountains, which is how a few gospel versions do it, even if most contemporary recordings (at least on YouTube and iTunes) tend to treat it as this slow almost mournful hymn. This was somewhere in between.
For those keeping score at home, those 8 songs ran a full hour. Sure, there was some talking and announcements, but most of those songs wouldn’t normally run over 3-4 minutes on their own, so you can see how much “padding” there was in each song.
After the intermission, Sleigh Ride, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, The Skater’s Overture, and even White Christmas were rather “ho hum”. Certainly nothing to write home about, unless it was “Meh, listened to some average music.”.
And then the full orchestra did O Holy Night. Just plain wow. There’s a version online of orchestra and trumpet by Adolphe Adam, and about the 1m10s point, it sounds like the version the orchestra did. I felt the NAC version was a bit faster version, and I liked it more, but the strings were uplifting.
The next song up was one I was looking forward to…Amazing Grace. Now, I’m willing to accept that some people can’t do justice to the song with the lyrics, sure. And there is no “one way” to sing it. It is as individual as the artist. Even if you love the song, you might not like every version, including the Oak Ridge Boys version at George Bush’s funeral last week. But no matter whether you prefer one that is heartbreaking or uplifting, fast or slow, male or female singer, I am hard-pressed to think of any preference that would have been satisfied by the version they did. With a large Bobby Floyd organ solo in the middle, it was unrecognizable for good portions of the song. If I hadn’t heard the basic opening and ending, or read the program in advance, I would have had NO idea what the song even was that they were playing. It was THAT badly done. Individual styling is one thing, destruction of a classic is another.
The show ended with Joy to the World, which was okay, nothing special.
The program promised at the end of the show there would be a “surprise” that would have everyone dancing in the aisles. And when the show ended, all the musicians rushed off stage left, taking their instruments with them. I assumed they were going out to the lobby to play while some busked for the Snowsuit Fund or Food Bank charities they support. I have no idea. No opportunity for an encore, no idea where they went, and when we went outside, we didn’t see them playing anywhere nor hear them. I have absolutely no idea what the “surprise” was supposed to be unless it was “Surprise, we sucked tonight and we’re leaving before you throw rotten fruit and vegetables at us!” and the dancing in the aisles was because it was over.
Extremely disappointing. Stripling did a couple of stock jokes about bad audiences, but after the intermission, he thanked everyone for coming back in as he said that the night before, a lot of people left at the intermission. While that is often a stock phrase rather than a true story, I actually believed it was possible. If this was their third night and they had tweaked anything to get it right, the other nights must have really sucked.
But the wonky part is that in the end, it’s still a night at the NAC with a great orchestra and live music. And O Holy Night was beautifully done, as was any of the smooth trumpet playing by Stripling. So despite my ranting above, I come out only a little bit below my wife’s take, which was that overall she enjoyed it. Too bad the rest of the program didn’t match those few gems.