Jazz vocalist and pianist Diane Schuur took her audience on a delightful ride at the Thomasville Center for the Arts Thursday evening, and, judging from their enthusiastic ovations, they loved it.
Blind since birth, Schuur needed a little assistance to get to her seat at the Thomasville Entertainment Foundation’s Steinway concert grand, but, once in place at the keyboard, she was fully and unquestionably in charge, needing no help steering the excellent jazz ensemble of Don Braden on saxophone and flute, Ben Wolfe on bass and Willie Jones III on drums.
The often spontaneous program changed on the fly, as Schuur at times rejected musical director Wolfe’s announced next piece, insisting, with her wide trademark smile, “no, let’s do this instead.”
No one argued, of course, and the jazz aficionados in the audience loved the relaxed and intimate feel of the show, even as the changing repertoire once sent Braden off-stage mid-song to quickly switch from sax to flute.
Casting absolutely no dispersions on the quartet that, this week, is beginning a well-prepared swing through the South before heading overseas, the soulful performance at times felt like it could have been taking place among a group of American expatriates in a smoky jazz club in 1950s Italy, with four musicians spontaneously agreeing to perform a pick-up set before a star act took the stage.
But the results were ravishing, and the technical excellence and well-honed skill of the musicians would have been equally at home in Carnegie Hall or simply gathered around a piano in the headliner’s apartment. It was happening, however, in southwest Georgia, for fortunate patrons of the Thomasville Entertainment Foundation’s 76th concert series.
Making sure the audience had fun and enjoyed the journey seemed Schuur’s foremost goal, and she succeeded beautifully. We tapped our feet, nodded our heads in rhythm and clapped along when we could no longer contain ourselves.
Throughout the night, Schuur proved herself a gifted interpreter of both standards and lesser known works, with a nod to the works of George and Ira Gershwin (“S’wonderful”), a soulful performance of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen’s “The Second Time Around” and rambunctious romps through Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and “Wild Like the Wind,” whose composer I unfortunately cannot place.
An unexpected change of tempo on “Here’s that Rainy Day” (with music by van Heusen and lyrics by Johnny Burke) showcased the lady’s expert handling of both torch-song and celebratory jazz in voice and on keyboard, skills that have made her a beloved and sought-after performer the world over.
Another favorite moment saw Schuur excuse the ensemble from the stage for a moving solo version of “Georgia on My Mind” that channeled her late friend Ray Charles not only in arrangement, but also in his trademark style and key.
Along the way, Schuur gave each of her fellow musicians a chance to showcase their considerable talents and skill, with Braden drawing particular notice time and time again.
The spontaneity of the show continued right down to the audience-demanded encore when, after Schuur and Wolfe agreed on one song, an audience member called out a request for one of her oft-performed signatures, Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You.” One couldn’t imagine a better note to end on.
Thursday’s performance marked the end of TEF’s 2013-14 performance series, and the organization’s next slate of concerts is being finalized for announcement later this spring.