Concert review: A packed Sheldon Concert Hall gets carried away by Bucky Pizzarelli and Denise Thimes, Friday, February 15

flickr.com/photos/loureiro/6038665502 / Eduardo Loureiro

At 87 years young, Bucky Pizzarelli, along with St. Louis’ Denise Thimes, ad-libbed his way through two hours of infectious swing and a five-minute standing ovation before relinquishing the stage back to the Sheldon.

Bucky, his white-shirt distinguishing him as leader on the night from the all-black ensembles of the quintet, has been a major figure in the music industry for his entire adult life. Mr. Pizzarelli, after starting professionally at 17 and working his way onto “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, found himself regularly touring with Benny Goodman. He even shares the distinction of being invited to perform at the White House — twice for Reagan and once for Bill Clinton.

Having performed for George W. Bush and Queen Elizabeth II herself, Denise Thimes proved a flawless accomplice for this “Be My Valentine” bill. Consistently compared to the legends such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, the singer also cites her father, St. Louis radio personality and BBQ restaurateur Lou “Fatha” Thimes, among her biggest influences.

Playing his signature guitar, the Benedetto Bucky Pizzarelli Signature seven-string, the musician set another high mark for the intimate Sheldon Concert Hall. It was jazz in the purest, with simple nods instigating solos and solos finding entire new directions for each timeless composition. Damrius Hicks, the trio’s standout drummer, took the plunge first before making his case for star status the rest of the night. Relentless, it felt as if his sheer exuberance would swallow the stage whole at any moment; he pushed his playing further and further, as if his parents were coming out to the garage to shut him down for the night.

The night’s muse also made her presence known rather immediately. Wordless, Denise prompted three rounds of boisterous applause for the band during her walk to the microphone. Speaking on behalf of the musicians, Denise put it simply, “Proud to be St. Louisans, nothing better than the Sheldon.” Making the impossible possible, Denise embodied yet another legend, Nina Simone, for the highlight of the night, “I Want a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” With the band taking a second to indulge in our adulation at the end, the smartest woman in the crowd loudly requested a repeat. Indulging the fans, the set on stage hit a more raucous reprise.

However, it was Bucky whose lighthearted fingerprints were all over the show. From making his bandmates repeatedly laugh at the utter audacity of his improvisations, to the child-like joy that washed over his face in response to the crowd, it was clear there wasn’t a place he’d rather be. He even cupped his hands and yelled to preempt the cover of “Sing Sing Sing” with a little tongue-in-cheek, “The next one you all know, so sing along.”

Showcasing the theme of the night, the group took the classic well off the beaten path, earning one of many thoroughly merited, full-house standing ovations.

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