in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

Byron Stripling.

In offering a New Year’s Eve performance at the Opera House thematically more than stylistically centered on the music of New Orleans, the Lexington Philharmonic largely bequeathed the evening to Columbus jazz artist Byron Stripling. As such, the orchestra maintained a distant presence in a program centered almost exclusively on Stripling’s animated profile as vocalist, raconteur, trumpeter and occasional conductor. But by the evening’s end, it was his second-in-command – and by that we don’t mean the first violinist – that stole the show.

First things first. The Philharmonic knew what it was in for by enlisting Stripling as guest conductor (one of the few leading the orchestra’s concerts this season not vying for the job of its next music director). Having served in the role as recently as 2017 for another New Year’s Eve performance centered on Cotton Club-era jazz, he proved an engaging, audience-friendly entertainer and a fine fit for a pops concert.

Juggling multiple roles with conducting consuming the least of his stage time, Stripling revealed a sharp, vibrant tone on trumpet indicative of his idol Louis Armstrong but a vocal and emcee flair more in line with a reveler like Cab Calloway.

All of that suited the evening’s repertoire neatly, whether it was through tunes readily associated with Crescent City, as in a regal reading of “Basin Street Blues” and its subsequent call-and-response vocals with the audience, or works with a comparatively tenuous New Orleans link, as in a somewhat overly tidy version of the blues standard “I Got My Mojo Working.”

Throughout most of this, the Philharmonic’s presence was modest, a product largely of arrangements that called for little more than rudimentary string and brass accompaniment. A few intriguing exceptions were “St. James Infirmary” and “St. Louis Blues,” where the orchestra’s summery grace provided the music with a “Porgy and Bess” level of elegance.

The bulk of the program instead placed emphasis on leaner workouts with a jazz trio featuring two of Stripling’s Columbus co-horts, pianist/B3 organist Bobby Floyd and drummer Rich Thompson, along with Lexington bassist Eli Uttal-Veroff. There was much to enjoy in their work, especially in an inventive Afro-Cuban remake of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

Bobby Floyd.

While the trio’s work left the Philharmonic with little to do but sit and watch for a considerable portion of the concert, it gave voice to the evening’s ace-in-the-hole – keyboardist Floyd. Aside from the churchy soulfulness he provided the full company performances and frequent sparring bouts with Stripling, the evening’s highlights came when Floyd was left alone.

In the first set, that translated to a robust version of Scott Joplin’s “Maple City Rag” on solo piano that was as authentic in its grasp of New Orleans’ musical spirit as anything in the concert. The second set allowed him to transform something as unlikely as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” into a pastoral blend of gospel and ragtime on piano before the rest of the combo and, eventually, the orchestra joined in.

The most magical moment, though, was saved for show’s closing moments. Having offered a suitable level of sass on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Stripling ushered the Philharmonic offstage and then left himself, leaving Floyd to wail away with a singular gospel-soul jam accompanied only by Thompson. As retiring a presence onstage as Stripling was extroverted, Floyd flashed a shy smile to the audience upon the jam’s completion and exited the stage as the house lights came up. The show, for all intents and purposes, was in his pocket as he departed.

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