Reviewed by George Basler
The air was frigid outside The Forum Saturday night (March 21), but the atmosphere inside was warm and festive. There was a little touch of Las Vegas in the Binghamton night, and that made for a swinging evening.
The good vibes came courtesy of the Binghamton Philharmonic Pops, some superb guest musicians and guest vocalist Steve Lippia, who for two solid hours paid tribute to the great Frank Sinatra with an array of 18 of “Ol’ Blue Eyes’” most recognizable songs.
Let me begin by stipulating I’m a Sinatra fan from way back. Even while tuning in to rock ’n’ roll back in my teenage and young adult years, I was secretly listening to the Chairman of the Board and wishing I could have been in Las Vegas to see the Rat Pack.
Lippia, who has a regular gig in Vegas, came to Binghamton for “Centennial Sinatra,” a concert marking the 100thanniversary of the famous singer’s birth. He willingly admits he’s not Frank Sinatra. And that’s all to the good. Lippia doesn’t resort to the tired “tribute band” gimmick of pretending to be the Chairman of the Board. Instead, he has a sound and style that is similar to Sinatra’s, but all his own as well.
Lippia was rock-solid Saturday night as he charmed the capacity audience. His phrasing and timing were impeccable, and he seemed to be having a good time, which is the mark of a true professional. He also provided an interesting, and humorous, commentary between songs that traced Sinatra’s career and the musical influences that molded him. An especially nice touch was Lippia’s tribute to some of the fine songwriters and arrangers who so ably supported Sinatra over the years. Nelson Riddle, Sammy Cahn and Don Costa came in for special mention.
The concert was a mixture of up-tempo numbers and ballads. While most of the songs were recognizable as Sinatra standards, a few unexpected numbers were thrown into the mix. One surprise was “The House I Live In,” written for a 1945 documentary film short starring Sinatra that opposed racial violence and anti-Semitism at the end of World War II. (The lyrics were written by Abel Meeropol who also wrote Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and who adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their 1953 execution as Soviet spies.) Lippia gave a strong performance that drew sustained applause.
Another surprise entry was “Old Man River,” a song few would identify with Frank Sinatra even though he recorded it in the 1940s. This may be heresy, but I’ve heard Sinatra’s version, and Lippia sounded better.
Lippia also did a very pretty rendition of “Softly as I Leave You,” one of Sinatra’s later songs, and a soulful version of the “saloon song” “One for My Baby,” accompanied just by a piano, played by Nick Weiser.
But Lippia was only part of the story Saturday night. The Philharmonic Pops, conducted by Jose-Luis Novo, was equally the star of the show. The orchestra, augmented by a jazz trio and guest trumpeter Pat Carney, really swung. Some of the arrangements were vintage big band versions while others were original charts by Jeff Tyzik, principal pops conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The string section added an impressive touch.
In short. it was a concert that made going out in the frigid air worth it. The music world is lucky to have had Frank Sinatra. And this area is lucky to have the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra.