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Tanglewood swings to the Williams legacy

LENOX -- Forty years ago, the great jazz drummer Shelly Manne approached a young pianist/arranger who was making a name for himself and asked him to put together a version of "My Fair Lady" for singers and a jazz ensemble.

Johnny Williams did it, and over the years the long out-of-print Capitol LP "with the UN-original cast" has become something of a collector's item for fans of Manne and of Williams, who is pictured on the back, skinny, with unruly hair, but with a smile generations of audiences will recognize immediately.

As part of the celebration of Williams's 25th anniversary with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Pops, Tanglewood arranged to revive Williams's version of "My Fair Lady" in a pair of live performances. Fortunately Manne's widow had preserved the original charts, and she came to hear the concerts. An all-star jazz quintet was recruited, backed up by a big band of Boston players, including BSO tubist Mike Roylance. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Dianne Reeves arrived to succeed the original vocalists, Jack Sheldon and Irene Kral.

Williams's arrangements, some with singers, some of them purely instrumental, sound as cool-jazz '60s as the photograph on the album; "I Could Have Danced All Night" comes from the same world as Henry Mancini's theme from "Peter Gunn." But there's also an edge that keeps them from sounding dated.

Williams constantly plays against type, changing the original tempos and styles, adding new countermelodies and torchy harmonies, and generally having fun turning the original score inside out and shaking it out in fresh rhythms. The singers deliver pure American English, leaving the elocutionary models of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews far behind.

In many respects, Monday night's Tanglewood performance was even better than the one on the recording. Mitchell duplicated most of Sheldon's performance, but with a better voice; Reeves added her own spontaneity, humor, and superior pipes to the female vocals. Carl Saunders's trumpet torched through some amazing elaborations, and Gary Foster brought imagination and swing to the core saxophone part.

Tom Ranier sounded lovely and sweet in Williams's Impressionistic piano version of "On the Street Where You Live," and percussionist Steve Houghton rose to the challenge of playing two extended contrasting solos devised for Shelly Manne.

The album ends quietly, so in order to send the crowd home happy, Williams created a perky new version of "Get Me to the Church on Time" with vocals, complete with a new reference to the Berkshires in the lyrics.

The first half of the program featured the quintet in percolating versions of ballads like "I Can't Get Started" and a vintage Williams arrangement of Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Mitchell and Reeves had a couple of solo numbers apiece. The baritone's self-infatuated manner is not appealing, but he's a very good singer who delivered "How Long Has This Been Going On?" with elegant, long-breathed phrasing. Reeves was simply sensational in "Make Someone Happy" and a scat version of Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," singing with lively invention and perfect tuning over a wide range, sustaining some pitches with absolute steadiness, and letting other notes dodge and ricochet around the playing of the quintet. Seiji Ozawa Hall is not a joint, but it was jumping.

In Tribute to John Williams
At: Seiji OzawaHall, Tanglewood, Monday night

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