Houston Symphony’s big-band salute a great escape from troubled times
Bill Westmoreland

The “Houston Symphony Big Band” has a nice ring to it. If circumstances were different, a canny promoter could easily take these cats on the road.

Things being as they are, though, a socially distanced evening of swing-era favorites is about as festive as it gets. Titled “In the Mood: A Big Band New Year,” this weekend’s concerts hopefully pointed the way toward a brighter tomorrow with a brace of evergreen toe-tappers.

Fresh from his contract extension through 2026-27, principal pops conductor Steven Reineke invited all those watching the livestream of Saturday’s concert to “feel free to kick off your shoes and kick up your heels and have a nice dance party at home with us.” (As of mid-Sunday afternoon, said livestream was approaching 2,000 views.)

But 2020 isn’t quite far enough in the rear-view mirror for things to go off without a hitch. Scheduled guest David Casares took ill earlier in the week, so Reineke enlisted Tony DeSare as a last-minute replacement. A piano-playing crooner in the Harry Connick, Jr. mold, the New York-based DeSare is something of a Frank Sinatra specialist, and in fact headlined the symphony’s Sinatra tribute weekend almost exactly a year ago.

Joining him were the orchestra’s regular trumpet and trombone sections (more or less), plus an assortment of first-call freelancers, area music educators, and Houston jazz stalwarts, including saxophonists Woody Witt and Warren Sneed; guitarist Mike Wheeler; and drummer Joe Beam. Others came from still further afield: pianist Jose-Miguel Yamal is a professor of biostatistics at the University of Texas School of Public Health; upright bassist Joe Abuso established his own catering firm.

Reineke conducted the black-clad ensemble with a spring in his step and soloist salutes aplenty, plus a sly introduction or two. Before “Auld Lang Syne,” he said, “the first part of this song, we’ll call it 2020. The second part we’ll call what we hope 2021 sounds like.” The arrangement, in turn, began stately and somber — almost like a jazz funeral — before blooming into a ballroom-ready canter.

The orchestra’s execution only highlighted how well-made these songs are, be they “Take the ‘A’ Train” or “The Lady is a Tramp.” Each part meshed seamlessly, with not a roiling drum fill, tendril of piano, sassy trumpet solo, or swooping saxophone run out of place.

DeSare, for his part, has clearly studied Sinatra well. Onstage, he too comes off as amiable and swaggering, but with the proper sense of the bittersweet needed for “Summer Wind.” Elsewhere, his brio on “Come Fly With Me” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was matched only by his piano panache on a florid, even Liberace-esque extended introduction to “Fly Me to the Moon.”

The evening’s most creative arrangement was not of Ol’ Blue Eyes, though, but a version of Prince’s 1986 hit “Kiss,” which DeSare co-arranged himself and delivered with secret-agent suaveness. The song suffered little, if at all, from its much younger vintage.

In keeping with the evening’s upbeat tone, ballads were relatively scarce. But the orchestra made it count, rendering the Gershwins’ “I’ve Got a Crush on You” as tender a torch song as one could ask for. Harold Arlen’s foxtrot-fast “Get Happy” was a fine finale, and relatively obscure Sinatra cut “Live Till I Die” an equally invigorating encore.

The previous few days have shown little encouragement that the turmoil of recent months is behind us. And so the urge to escape into upbeat songs is as powerful now as it was when “You Make Me Feel So Young” and “Love is Here to Stay” were new. DeSare remarked that they, too, were often written during turbulent times.

Judging by the redoubtable Houston Symphony Big Band, though, the world has yet to see a malignant force that can kill the optimism of these irrepressible tunes.

Chris Gray, Houston Chronicle
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