THE BEATLES HAVE NOTHING ON PETER NERO. The legendary pianist appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show 11 times, among many other achievements, honors and awards in a long and illustrious career.
Nero created his magic for a good crowd braving the cold Tuesday night at the Sottile Theatre in the third of the Charleston Concert Association’s four-event 2013-14 season.
Exuding personality that is inexorably reflected in his style of playing, this master of the keyboard proved witty, urbane, bouncy, sophisticated, classy and irreverent, both in his remarks and in the universal language of music. He peppered his performance with one-liners that were as extemporaneous as his music-making, providing over two hours of delightful entertainment.
Michael Barnett has been Nero’s principal bassist for over 18 years, and together they made a dozen iconic compositions of their own. The founding conductor and Artistic Director of his trademark Philly Pops and a Grammy-winning recording artist with 68 albums to his credit, Nero is primarily noted as a jazz pianist, and did he and Barnett ever jazz up Valentine’s Day with “Music of the Heart.”
In every selection, Nero’s embellishments from hiccupping grace notes to block chords, doubling octaves to doodling around a single note, informed songs that ranged from 1930s pop tunes to Broadway classics, a bit of classical concert repertoire to straight-ahead jazz. Nero demonstrated in his opening number how “I Can’t Get Started With You” is based on an opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s, and later Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” morphed in the most natural and insightful way to “Night and Day.” His ability to render with consummate grace the most lyrical passage, then create a riff that quadruples the speed and harmonic complexity of the same melody, is nothing short of brilliant.
The way Nero played Jerome Kern’s gorgeous “All the Things You Are” brought sighs, followed by wonderful things happening from bass to treble, supported by the bass line that adds a welcome dimension of depth and resonance. It’s the texture, so subtly interwoven with the melodies we know, that make every phrase intriguing and every performance different: 75 percent of what they do is improvisation, or improvisational, Nero stated.
Choosing to announce selections from the stage, so he could “call ‘em as I feel ‘em,” Nero had trouble with his mic so that some audience members protested they could not hear/understand him, and no one wanted to miss a syllable. The artist calmly strolled over to another mic stage left, removed it from its stand, dragged it back to his Steinway muttering something about “gain,“ and quipped, “I belong to the wrong union for this.” Then he asked, since we assured him this was better, why we weren’t rolling in the aisles laughing. “My Funny Valentine” was a must-play for this occasion, and you have never heard it quite like this—and will not again.
Concluding the first half of the eclectic program was an incredible take on “I Got Rhythm” from George Gershwin’s 1930 musical “Girl Crazy” which put Ethel Merman on the map. Nero’s “The I Got Rhythm Variations” incorporates the styles of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, and “premiered at the Daytona 500.” Nero’s fingers fairly skittered over the ivories, hitting notes—and all the right ones—with the same speed and precision as a flurry of hummingbird wings.
After what could have been an awkward moment as Nero drew the winning number in a raffle for a giant box of chocolates won by a season ticket subscriber were it not for Nero’s ad-libbed running commentary, Nero announced he was a romantic, married for 53 years (applause, applause)—“to three different wives, what’s the difference?” This led to a romantic ballad, natch, Michelle LeGrand’s theme from the motion picture, “The Summer of ’42” which won Nero a Gold Record.
Each song has a life of its own, and Nero never fails to give them a new one, with his explorations that sound as though they are endemic to the original. Indeed, in Nero’s unique designs and configurations, they are. In a well-developed medley of Gershwin songs that segued seamlessly from one to another, we recognized “The Man I Love,” a lick of “Rhapsody in Blue,” the street sounds of “An American in Paris” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.”
Perhaps the spontaneity of the standing ovation sparked Nero into giving us a new perspective on Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” every song in the musical standing on its own for the first time—a classic way to end a concert that had us whistling and humming all the way down the aisles. Bravo, sir.