The rich voice and expressive styling of baritone Jubilant Sykes kept an appreciative Lied Center audience in rapt attention for two hours Friday night. He sang folk songs, jazz standards, spirituals, Broadway songs, Latin American songs and popular songs -- and seemed equally at home in them all. He also displayed a great deal of personal charm throughout the evening; one audience member described it as "flirting with the audience."
Sykes led off with a set of brief Latin American songs, crisply trilling his R's and, in the up-tempo "Boi-Bumba," articulating a stunning cascade of Portuguese syllables at an almost auctioneer-like cadence. In these songs he also introduced a signature technique of soft crooning in his upper range with great purity of tone, at times flutelike and, in pianissimo passages, almost soprano-like in quality.
His versatility was quickly evident as he followed the Latin songs with the hymn, "At The River," and then the playful folksong "I Bought Me a Cat," delighting the audience with an astounding repertoire of animal sounds. Aaron Copland's "Simple Gifts" also pleased; and then the spiritual "City Called Heaven" and Hammerstein's "Old Man River" carried the concert to intermission.
A microphone appeared for the first time on these last two, and was well-suited to another Sykes trademark: a soft, breathy jazz styling with which he re-interpreted these songs as well as traditional spirituals in the second half of the program. He was very capably accompanied by pianist Mark Rice, who seemed perfectly attuned to Sykes' phrasing.
After intermission, Rice was joined by bassist Roberto Miranda and percussionist Darren Ross, and the jazz-flavored numbers turned into jazz itself with an opening set of three: "Straighten Up and Fly Right," "But Not for Me" and "Cry Me a River." Along with Sykes' command of the jazz idiom, the band showed its abilities here, including a fine bass riff in the Cole number and several bars of solid instrumental trio in "Cry Me a River."
While the rest took a break, Miranda evoked prolonged applause with a virtuoso bass solo, featuring incredible frenzies of fingering and plucking. Later he was joined by Ross in a rendition of a Thelonious Monk number, with Ross exhibiting a wonderfully delicate touch with the brushes.
Sykes finished the evening with a set of three spirituals, concluding with "Were You There?" Once again, the influence of jazz was evident, and only in his encore did the artist demonstrate his undoubted ability in traditional spiritual style as he left the microphone to sing an a cappella "Witness." The audience was further rewarded with a well-received second encore, the Stevie Wonder ballad "You and I."
Throughout the evening, the focus was on Sykes' unique vocal quality with its complex overtones, and on his expressive delivery of a wide repertoire. His voice at times held a buttery cello tone, at others a trumpetlike clarity; but at all times he had the audience in the palm of his hand.