On a day officially proclaimed by the Town of Palm Beach as Bob Lappin Day, the Palm Beach Pops kicked off its 20th season Friday night at the Kravis Center doing what they do best: celebrating the music of the Great American Songbook and the big band era in a well-paced, balanced program that was a whole lot of fun.
This “new and improved” Pops hit the ground running this season, bringing back their many strengths from previous years while improving on things that have gotten in the way of a good time in the past. The focus has always been on the music, but this season it seems to be more so than ever.
The mood was set from the very beginning, as maestro Lappin opened the evening by simply introducing guest Tony DeSare for a rousing rendition of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. The young singer/songwriter/pianist would come back later in the set for a stunning read of the beautiful Two for the Road by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, and an upbeat take at the keys on Berlin’s I Love a Piano.
DeSare is the real deal, cut from the same cloth as a Connick or a Bublé, but with a style and approach all his own, a natural knack for phrasing that reflects an admitted Sinatra influence and a polished stage presence that belies his age.
Also on the program was Pops favorite Lynn Roberts, a veteran performer who has the distinction of having actually sung with five of the top big bands back in the day. Though she admits to starting her career at a very young age, she neither looks nor sings like someone old enough to make that claim — strutting her way through chestnuts like The Lady is a Tramp, then moving effortlessly into the lovely Serenade In Blue. The gorgeous Tommy Newsome arrangement of that tune featured harpist Kay Kemper, a 20-year Pops member and one of several regulars that were given their chance to shine.
A big band medley early in the evening really cooked, with the brass and reeds erupting into Harry James’ Two O’ Clock Jump. Then there was the multi-stage lift-off of perennial favorite Bill Bailey, starting out in a cool jazz motif with the Pops trio — Lappin on piano with bassist Ranses Colon and drummer Frank Derrick, also a 20-year Pops member. They downshifted into a full-blown Dixieland romp, with a different trio — Randy Emerick on clarinet, trumpeter Steve Ahern and Dante Luciani on trombone — stepping into the downstage spotlight to drive this toe-tapper home.
The second half proved to be just as satisfying, with equal parts big numbers, sweet ballads and great performances: DeSare held his own in classics like Just In Time and Night and Day, then completely nailed Rodgers and Hart’s poignant gem My Funny Valentine. Roberts soared in Berlin’s Blue Skies, then countered with a wistful take on Over The Rainbow. Sax men Jim Hayward and Randy Emerick traded solos on the playful Sax Alley. A full-tilt version of the showstopper Sing, Sing, Sing — featuring some fine tom-tom work by Derrick and refreshing choreography in the cello section — closed out the evening with a bang.
While first-rate performances by both the musicians and guest soloists have long been the norm at the Pops, this concerted effort to balance the use of the guests and pick up the overall pace of the program goes a long way toward making the Pops even more accessible to casual music lovers of all ages.
It’s looking like “nothing but blue skies” for the Palm Beach Pops in season 20.