By Sarah Downs
Bobby Conte lit up Birdland on Monday night, in a performance that was equal parts brashness and charm. Supported by a kicking 10-piece band conducted by Pianist/Arranger/Musical Director extraordinaire James Sampliner, Conte sang with ease in a range of genres, committing full-out to every note. Sensitive and even a little quirky, Conte is sui generis — musically adept, theatrical in personality and totally irrepressible.
In this ambitious program, which he has also recorded in his album Along the Way, (under his full name Bobby Conte Thornton), Conte has rooted around among his favorite music and come up with a diverse repertoire list that reflects the equally diverse musical influences in his life, including Sinatra circa. Rat Pack and the Three Tenors.
In his orchestrations, Sampliner has happily exploited Conte’s talent, reflecting Conte’s musical choices and vocal colors back at him in orchestrations that utilize each band instrument to its fullest. The mood is daring. Blame if on My Youth set to a snazzy Latin beat? She Loves Me as boogie woogie jazz tune with virtuoso piano, walking bass (Michael Blanco), and killer saxophone solo (Michael McGarril) ? (Whaaaat??) You know Sampliner had fun coming up with this stuff.
For his part, Conte is an energy vortex, performing all-out, daring the audience not to be swept away hy his charisma and sheer abandon. He throws himself into his work, sometimes punctuating the moment a literal toss of the head, whether driving relentlessly through the drama of Jerry Herman’s Time Heals Everything or bouncing along the alt/pop tune I’m All Over it Now by Jamie Cullum. Conte often colors ‘outside the lines,’ as it were, but he manages to keep hold of the reins. He displays a lovely sweetness of tone in his high range, well suited to Billy Joels’ Vienna, or (my favorite) Beatles tune Here There and Everywhere, accompanied by Dillon Condor on the acoustic guitar. In the quiet of that tender lyric, Sampliner has added a frisson of Blackbird — just a brief chord progression – but this subtle touch created a gem of a moment.
Conte frames the evening as a conversation, but not for small talk. As he said, ‘we’re digging in.’ and indeed he dug in, in patter both touching and hysterically funny, speaking openly about love and loss, and the important influences in his life. He also dug in musically, demonstrating an impressive stylistic range. In one musical ‘set’ he went from Sondheim, through a heartfelt rendition of the R&B tune Me and Mrs. Jones, to free-style piano accompaniment that made the song more of a recitative, and on to a beautiful medley of Irving Berlin’s How Deep is the Ocean/Maybe It’s Because I Love You Too Much, arranged for strings. The chamber music melded into a smooth foxtrot against which Conte backphrased effectively, maintaining the more narrative lyric while the orchestration danced onward.
All of the players clearly enjoyed partnering with Conte. Leading them on flawless piano, Sampliner held it all together, while still given Conte full opportunity to react in the moment. The evening would not have been complete without a reprise of Conte’s signature piece as the character “PJ” in the recent, ground-breaking, Broadway production of Company. Surrounded by the supportive theatrical family of friends and castmates from that show, Conte delivered a searing rendition of Another Hundred People.
I am so grateful Conte is taking this show on the road, as it is gloriously uplifting in its sheer energy. This is not your usual cabaret show; it’s more like big band theater, which I think could easily translate to a larger venue. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Band: Piano/Arrangements/Orchestrations, James Sampliner. Dillon Condor, guitar; Michael Blanco, bass; Matt Smallcomb, percussion; Jami Dauber, trumpet; Michael McGarril, saxophone/flute; Yuko Gotay, violin 1; Ralph Farris, violin 2; Kiku Enomoto, viola; Eleanor Norton, cello.
Bobby Conte Thornton’s debut studio album, “Along the Way“, is available across all digital music providers.
Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th St. NYC.