Classy night at Cargo: Denise Donatelli, Reno Jazz Orchestra

Tahoe Onstage

Backed by the Reno Jazz Orchestra, Denise Donatelli sings in the Cargo Concert Hall.
Tahoe Onstage images by Michael Smyth

Denise Donatelli and the Reno Jazz Orchestra brought a refreshing touch of class Friday evening to the usually raucous Cargo Concert Hall at The Whitney Peak Hotel in downtown Reno.

The multi-Grammy-nominated and Los Angeles Jazz Society’s 2012 Jazz Vocalist of the Year displayed subtle elegance as she delivered tracks from all three of her nominated albums. The Reno Jazz Orchestra began the evening with an instrumental number before introducing Donatelli, who kicked off the show with the title track from her 2010 album “When Lights Are Low” and followed it up with “Kisses” from the same record.

With the near-capacity crowd settled into their seats, and after a touch of confusion about what was next on the set list, Donatelli and the RJO presented a beautiful rendition of Johnny Mandel’s “Shadow of Your Smile” highlighted by Matt Harris’ work on piano. Brought in for the two-night Nevada run by Donatelli, Harris handled pianist duties instead of the dynamic Bill Hecht, and served as music director for jazz orchestra founding member Chuck Reider, who nonetheless donned his trombone in the ensemble.

The performance, divided into two sets and featuring a meet and greet for specific patrons at intermission, moved along at a bit of a slow pace and on occasion. Donatelli’s song introductions were a bit awkward. I could certainly see where a vocalist of her precise nature may have simply been caught a touch by surprise by our dry and currently smoky summer air, throwing things off a touch. She did seem more comfortable and relaxed in the second set, however, perhaps making an adjustment of some sort with Harris or the sound team. There was no awkwardness from the Reno Jazz Orchestra, which provided a beautiful collective canvas for Donatelli throughout the evening and punctuated her efforts with various solo injections.

Donatelli’s detailed and understated vocal presentation featured style and grace over expansive range on most of the selections. The comfort of the second set showed, though, as it loosened up a bit with a Joni Mitchell cover of “Be Cool,” a stylistic effort on Duke Ellington’s “Day Dream,” and the most up-tempo offering of the night coming to close the main show, “It’s You or No One.” A semi-standing ovation and some urging from the crowd brought one encore number before all onstage took a well-deserved bow. In case you missed it, they did it all again on Sept. 2 at Lake Tahoe’s  beautiful Sand Harbor.

Acoustically, the Cargo Concert Hall turned out to be a excellent showcase for a jazz event and I’d love to see them do it more often. It was certainly attended well, though I’m sure nowhere near the libation concession they’re accustomed to. The only drawback was that even from the other side of the room, in the quietest performance moments, the faint whir of the bar dishwashers were detectable. But all in all, it was a classy evening as Cargo transformed into a hip, glowing neon blue and yellow jazz joint in downtown Reno.

-Michael Smyth

About Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth moved to Reno in 2007 after living more than 40 years in the Bay Area. In addition to going to live shows, he enjoys golf, skiing and fly-fishing. Check out his website

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