You’ve got to love a concert in which a symphony orchestra gets down and plays some Fats Waller.
Saturday, the Spokane Symphony ventured into the absolutely infectious world of Waller, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, and Scott Joplin, thanks to the presence of Butch Thompson.
Thompson, as listeners of “A Prairie Home Companion” are aware, is a devotee of all things ragtime, all things jazz, and all things blues. He is a marvelous pianist, as he proved over and over again Saturday night. I was not aware, however, that he is also a mellow and pleasing clarinetist, which he proved on a few tunes.
Thompson even played the clarinet and piano simultaneously for one brief snippet, but only to humorously prove it doesn’t work very well - he had to play the same note on the clarinet over and over.
Not to take anything away from the orchestra, but the highlights of the evening came when Thompson went solo on the piano. Before launching into Fats Waller’s “A Handful of Keys,” he mentioned that the jazz pianists of the day were constantly trying to one-up each other with virtuoso compositions. They were, in essence, saying to each other, “I dare you to play this.”
Thompson proved to easily be up to the task, as he was on another fabulous Jelly Roll Morton number, “Mamie’s Blues.”
In fact, one of the finest moments in the whole show came at the encore, when the tall, lanky Minnesotan strode back out to the piano and played a slow and soulful piano blues tune. He never said what it was (something by Morton, Waller, Ellington?) but it certainly showed how languorous and pensive the piano blues can be, in the right hands.
The symphony, under the direction of Randi Von Ellefson, contributed a great deal to the evening, thanks to some great playing, and also thanks to some very nice arrangements. Stride, ragtime and blues cannot be easy to orchestrate, written as they are so specifically for a single instrument, but Gordon Wright’s “Scott Joplin Suite” was especially fine. The orchestra jumped in and emphasized the appropriate passages, while laying off in other passages, letting the piano do its work.
The orchestra also sounded fine in a moody and dreamy rendition of Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” with Thompson providing the piano melody. Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was a rollicking good time.
The first half of the show featured the orchestra alone, playing two Gershwin overtures, “Strike Up the Band” and “Girl Crazy,” as well as the marvelous “Ellington Suite,” which contained many of Ellington’s finest compositions, including “Take the A-Train” and “Satin Doll.”
Of particular note in the orchestra was percussionist Rick Westrick, who was able to show off his considerable chops as a jazz drummer.
Thompson was a winning guest artist, not just because of his knowledge of this distinctly American art form, but also because of his genial and friendly personality. He is as low-key as the proverbial Norwegian bachelor farmer, but his love of the music and his own shy enthusiasm helped those of us in the audience love the music as much as Thompson himself obviously does.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Butch Thompson and the Spokane Symphony Orchestra Saturday, Feb. 3, at the Opera House