Sometimes a change is as good as a holiday. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato certainly looked especially relaxed on Monday evening at the Ordway Theater, surrounded by a clutch of leading New York jazz players to tout her new album “Songplay.”
At 50, DiDonato has built a formidable reputation singing the vocally florid music of Handel, Mozart and Rossini in particular. But “Songplay” is a different type of animal altogether. Based on selections from the Italian art song repertoire, DiDonato’s 90-minute “Songplay” concert probed boundaries between classical and jazz idioms, looking for overlaps and opportunities to dissolve barriers altogether.
The opening of musical borders began immediately in the first song, “Caro mio ben.” Starting in conventional recital fashion, pianist Craig Terry gradually laced his piano accompaniment with jazz chordings, drawing mock astonishment from an allegedly strait-laced DiDonato.
More creamy soft singing graced Giulio Caccini’s “Amarilli, mia bella,” where legendary jazz bassist Chuck Israels slotted neatly into the ensemble while DiDonato did some palpitating trilling.
Jolting from that baroque-era song to Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” looked impossible on paper, but whispering brushwork by percussionist Jimmy Madison and a tasty muted trumpet solo from Charlie Porter eased the transition.
Solo spots by the musicians punctuated DiDonato’s vocal sets. Argentine bandoneonist Lautaro Greco cast wistful, melancholic shadows over Enrique Delfino’s “Griseta.” Porter played the keening, unaccompanied “Prologue” off his new album. In fact, Porter was a star all evening. His fluttering fluegelhorn solo in Torelli’s “Tu lo sai” and occasional witty imitations of DiDonato’s vocal embellishments counted among many highlights.
The jazz style is a difficult one for classical musicians, mainly because they’re used to performing predetermined notes, with rare occasion to improvise. But Terry’s deft arrangements of the classical material gave DiDonato room to stretch the notes and rhythms while generally avoiding free-form, open-ended territory.
There were occasionally some stylistic issues. Typically DiDonato started songs in a restrained, small-ensemble manner, only for her raw operatic instincts to kick in later. In Harnick and Bock’s “Will He Like Me?,” for instance, Di-Donato began intimately before hitting the vocal afterburners, opening the song out like a romantic operatic aria. Depending on your point of view, those transitions seemed either disconcerting — like two or three voices contained in the body of a single singer — or fascinating evidence of how swiftly one style can morph into another.
DiDonato’s “Songplay” show was also a lot of fun. Weiss and Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” had an infectious swagger, while Terry set new land speed records for piano playing in a zippy solo ride through Zez Confrey’s “Dizzy Fingers.”
The Vivaldi aria performed as first encore started as standard-issue DiDonato, the diva peeling off dazzling strings of coloratura in her trademark fashion. But in the da capo section the piece developed an uncontrollable attack of jazz hands, as trumpeter Porter fired off dizzy imitations of DiDonato’s vocalism and the band sizzled behind him.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.