Music lovers treated to five-star feast
Bill Westmoreland

Tony DeSare and the Terre Haute Symphony could have turned in a pleasant performance late last month in Fairbanks Park and the audience would have been happy just for the chance to hear live music in person.

But neither the multi-talented DeSare nor the THSO apparently considers “pleasant” a worthy goal. In a well-paced, 90-minute show, music lovers were treated to a five-star feast of jazz, pop and the Great American Songbook. With a pared-down orchestra – social distancing dictates – and his own trio, DeSare was nothing short of a revelation.

He sings beautifully, plays the piano like a divine demon and composes the kind of quality material that won the USA Songwriting Contest for him a while back. Who knows? He’s probably a great dancer, too.

Sporting a neat quarantine goatee, DeSare resembles the young Jerry Seinfeld. His wonderfully supple voice and intelligent phrasing evoke Sinatra, Michael Buble, Harry Connick and the late, woefully underrated Kenny Rankin. While he performs a lot of Sinatra’s repertoire, he is, refreshingly, not an Old Blue Eyes imitator. He’s more a Frank appreciator – just as he’s an appreciator of Prince, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Brothers Gibb.

That admiration often includes arrangements. After a rousing opener of “Come Fly With Me,“ DeSare eased into Sinatra’s 1966 Grammy winner, “It Was a Very Good Year.” The 19-member THSO, conducted by Artistic Director David Bowden, essentially channeled legendary arranger Gordon Jenkins, sounding lush, poignant and like an orchestra three times its size.

In fact, a word here about the musicians, all of whom were masked and spread out on the mostly concrete stage of the Fairbanks amphitheater. COVID-19 has idled thousands of people who make their living making music, but anyone who expected a sub-par or rusty performance from Terre Haute’s assemblage of players could not have been farther off-base. And each instrumentalist was complemented by some of the best microphone and sound tech available. (Hats off to Indianapolis wizard Robin Shanks and son John.)

Everyone deserves kudos, but a few standouts were Rebecca McGuire, the THSO’s new principal oboist, first violinist Daniel Aizenshtadt and guest harpist Melanie Mashner.

As for DeSare’s trio, the three men are just plain dynamite. Bassist Dylan Shamat, drummer Michael Klopp and guitarist Edward Decker (playing on seven strings) made me hungry for long solos in the kind of nightclub we all see in our big band-jazz dreams.

Decker, particularly, lit up the early evening with marvelous solo riffs on “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Just In Time” and a sizzling DeSare encore, “I’m Gonna Live Until I Die.” Talk about channeling; Decker seemed at different times to be inhabited by Django Reinhardt, George Barnes, Wes Montgomery, the great Barney Kessel and Eric Clapton. Among others.

So, too, was DeSare possessed when he switched his focus from stand-up vocals to sing and play at the keyboard of his gorgeous Yamaha digital hybrid. Through various numbers he performed stride, ragtime, boogie-woogie, honkytonk, low-down blues, rock and some Gil Evans-like frenzied flights. I heard Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson, Scott Joplin, McCoy Tyner, Little Richard and Franz Liszt. Among others.

DeSare even hiked his right leg, a la Jerry Lee Lewis, to play a few high notes with his foot on “Great Balls Of Fire.”

Two of the three original songs DeSare offered were clever and fun: “The New Orleans Tango” and “Paris Will Always Have You.” The third, a sweet, touching DeSare composition, “How I Will Say I Love You,” seemed just as valid a lullaby to a child as a pledge to a romantic partner:

Sing the blues, I’ll listen intently/Call my name, I’ll be at your door/Cry out loud, I’ll hold you ‘til it’s over/And that’s how I will say I love you.

DeSare performs that song and many others on YouTube and has released a sizable number of CDs, including three Top 10 Billboard jazz albums. But as he told the THSO audience, nothing beats standing before a real, human audience, even if it’s socially distanced, masked and sitting in lawn chairs. During the pandemic, he said, he’s posted more than 150 recordings from his home studio to buoy his spirits, but “it’s amazing to hear applause instead of silence from my iPhone.”

The two standing ovations he and the THSO received at concert’s end probably weren’t bad either.

Stephanie Salter is a retired Tribune-Star columnist and live music loyalist.

Stephanie Salter, TribStar
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