The intimate performance space tucked away on the second floor of the Harlem Stage Gatehouse hummed with the murmurs of a crowd eagerly awaiting the arrival of soul singer Bilal accompanied by the Revive Big Band. Huddled in threes and fours around small black tables, the patrons presented a fairly wide spectrum of age, race and borough.
Not too long after the scheduled start time, Bilal stepped onto the stage under the delicate arch of a landmarked building that, in the 1890s, was part of the Croton Aqueduct water system. That was an era when buildings for civic purposes were adorned with distinctive architectural features.
Backed by a 15-piece band (including musical director, arranger and trumpeter Igmar Thomas), Bilal kicked off his show with “Back to Love,” a track from his 2013 album “A Love Surreal.” His bespoke blue suit and vest had a slight shimmer under the stage lights as he belted out the lovelorn lyrics.
Bilal powered through a few more of his new tracks, marvelously reworked to highlight the beauty and power of a big band. Thomas noted that Bilal had written the music for the selections. Bilal’s talents clearly extend beyond his vocal instrument.
In addition to wonderful tributes to music legends Wayne Shorter and Donald Byrd and a standing ovation-worthy solo from trombonist Frank Lacy, Bilal also performed songs from his first album, “1st Born Second,” much to the delight of the audience. Brent Birckhead had an amazing saxophone solo on “Reminisce,” and Thomas got some well-deserved applause for his trumpet solo during “Sometimes.” Bilal, of course, was impeccable–frequently tuning into his signature falsetto.
At the end of the performance, the festivities were put into the very capable hands of DJ Reborn. She made sure to keep the party going before and after the show.
Bilal’s performance with the Revive Big Band was great, and it was a treat to hear his music revamped for a big band sound. However, there was one gigantic exclusion in the set—at least for this writer. Bilal did not perform “Soul Sister.” That track is a gorgeous, sultry salute to women, and what better place than Harlem (full of soul sistas!) to belt out that song? But, all in all, it was a great show. Bilal and the Revive Band were a delight.