You've got to give them credit. Cleo Laine and John Dankworth really have their act together.
Operating with the smooth precision and elegant grace of a vintage Rolls-Royce, the first couple of English jazz brought just the right combination of style and substance to the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Thursday evening for the opening concert in the Pacific Symphony Orchestra's Sensational Second Season of Pops.
The initial part of the program was Dankworth's. Currently the pops musical director of the London Symphony Orchestra, he assembled a 45-minute collection of frothy, jazz-at-the-pops arrangements that provided pleasant, if not particularly demanding, showcases for his amiable clarinet, and soprano and alto saxophones.
Dankworth's excellent orchestration skills generated sparks of wit and humor in a sprightly set of variations on "London Bridge," and some outright satire in a Beethoven/Mozart/Tchaikovsky/Bizet/Sousa/Strauss version of "Three Blind Mice."
But Dankworth would probably be the first to acknowledge that Laine's voice was the real substance of the show. The only singer ever to be nominated for Grammy awards in the female popular classical and Jazz categories, she can, quite literally, do it all.
Lushly attractive in a red gown, with dreadlocked hair framing incredible cheekbones, full lips and electric eyes, Laine (who will be 60 this month) looked as good as she sounded.
Her rich, feral tones transformed "That Old Feeling" into a sensuously erotic escapade. On "Taking a Chance on Love" she bared her jazz chops, swinging with an easy groove and effortlessly popping out the airy falsetto high notes that have become her trademark.
A medley of Shakespeare songs, however, was more appealing for Laine's acting skills than for the pedestrian music, and a trio of numbers from Broadway's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (in which Laine starred) never quite caught fire.
Laine's finest moments, predictably, came with standards--especially a gorgeous Hoagy Carmichael medley and a definitive reading of "Star Dust."
The Pacific Symphony, playing Dankworth's sometimes difficult charts (especially for the brass), again confirmed that it is an ensemble with skill, vigor and an immensely promising future.
Laine and Dankworth also will appear at Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College Sunday at 7 p.m.