Music entertainment legend Paul Shaffer led the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra through a dazzling array of standards, jazz, blues and reggae tunes Thursday night at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, while regaling the audience of 1,100 with stories from his career of more than 40 years.
He took to the stage attired in a typically outrageous suit that made him look like a walking Jackson Pollock painting. With a setup that matched the one he used for 32 years as music director for David Letterman's shows, he switched between a grand piano and a Hammond B3 organ, going from the soul-jazz of “Walk on the Wild Side” to a touching tribute to his father on Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” to the Blues Brothers’ hit “Soul Man” to a brilliant and dynamic David Sharp arrangement of Richard Rodgers’ “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” probably the high point of the evening.
In his three decades with Letterman, Shaffer worked in myriad styles with musicians of every genre, but Thursday’s appearance with the NJO was a first, Shaffer’s debut as guest artist with a jazz big band. He remained genuinely ingratiating and self-deprecating throughout the performance. Along the way he dropped the names of many greats he had worked with, including Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Don Rickles, Sammy Davis Jr., and McCoy Tyner.
The NJO performed a set of six numbers in the first half, adequately prepping the band for its second-half marathon with Shaffer. The tunes included the easy swinging “Too Marvelous for Words,” the New Orleans street beat of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Blues in the Night,” the off-beat reggae of “Skank 7,” the ballad standard “Chelsea Bridge” and “I Got Rhythm.”
The NJO season continues its 43rd season with a Feb. 1 concert at The Cornhusker Marriott, featuring pianist Bob Washut and the 2019 Young Lions All-Star Band.