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POP WEEKEND : Mathis, Mancini Put Some Muscle Into Their Music

“Easy-listening” music is often thought of as bland, background fare--pleasant enough, but not very exciting or challenging. Performing Saturday at the Pacific Amphitheatre, Johnny Mathis and Henry Mancini proved that easy listening doesn’t have to resemble some kind of aural wallpaper, but can impart real passion and intensity.

The first clear evidence of this came when Mancini offered a tough, muscular and very cool version of his “Peter Gunn Theme,” which registers more sexy swagger than an entire season of “Miami Vice.” The point was seconded when Mathis effortlessly kept pace with the vigorous rhythms of “Brazil” and “Begin the Beguine,” standards that can match the latest hip-hop smash in any beats-per-minute derby.

Mathis’ vocal prowess was also evident in the way he was able to modulate his voice, building steadily from a soft beginning to a big finish. Barry Manilow achieves the same effect with escalating orchestral crescendos; Mathis does it with sheer vocal power and control. He employed this technique on several timeless ballads, from the 1942 evergreen “As Time Goes By” to the 1982 entry, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”

The 52-year-old singer also offered a tender, doo-wop version of Little Anthony & the Imperials’ torch classic, “I’m on the Outside (Looking In).” The song, the cornerstone of Mathis’ current album, represents an interesting departure for the singer: It’s more soulful and less formal than most of his old hits. Mathis was less successful on the Four Tops’ hit “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got),” which has more pronounced rock/R&B; rhythms. Mathis has always seemed uncomfortable singing against a rock backdrop.

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Mancini’s well-balanced opening set had something for everybody, from a rousing country hoedown selection from his “Oklahoma Crude” score to the Latin-edged pop smash “La Bamba.” But in his effort to please all tastes, Mancini is at times too timid: “La Bamba” could have used more salsa, and “The Stripper” could have been bawdier. His polite version of the latter song would have passed muster with the Parents Music Resource Center. The 64-year-old conductor gave his musicians more space to solo and improvise on his old theme songs, “Pink Panther” and, especially, “Peter Gunn,” which resembled an all-star jazz session.

Mancini has freshened his repertoire in recent years: He conducted a zesty version of the Bangles’ smash “Walk Like an Egyptian” and a delicate, hushed version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Mancini was bold to include the latter song, perhaps Lennon’s most prized solo work, but he showed a lack of sensitivity by immediately following it with his theme to the kitschy TV show “Hotel.”

Mathis and Mancini are the second superstar concert bill this month to disprove the stereotype that easy-listening music is lightweight, escapist fluff. Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick made the point even more emphatically two weeks ago when they played the Southland.

The lesson is simple, but important: The commitment and integrity of the performer is what counts, not the category of the music.

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