David Perrico is first and foremost a trumpet player; his instrument obvious to the eye and his talent for making music unmistakable to the ear.
But Perrico often compares his work to painting, beginning with a blank canvas. It all starts with writing, or “charting,” in musician’s parlance. That work, so important to Perrico’s craft, is what fans never see — aside from social-media posts showing sheet music seemingly crawling with thousands of black ants.
“I have my master’s degree in composition and film score, and I use my degree every day,” says Perrico, founder of his own Pop Strings orchestra, which headlines Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace Fridays and Saturday nights. “The writing is a huge part of what I do, and what I prefer, just for the artistry of it.”
Rooted in all that charting, Pop Strings presents a uniquely fulfilling night of entertainment — and it’s paid off. The bandleader just extended his contract to perform at the Barge through the rest of the year. The show’s set list is loaded with reconfigured contemporary and classic hits, mixed and mashed by Perrico and performed by a 14-piece band highlighted by a half-dozen string players. The show in the moated, Egyptian-appointed venue dating to 1970 is arare no-cover-charge experience, too.
The rollicking presentation, where hotel guests and passersby often spontaneously spill into the room after hearing the act from the walkway outside, hearkens to the days when such top-level live acts as Louis Prima and Keely Smith and The Witnesses, led by Sam Butera, held court at Casbar Lounge at the Sahara.
“A lot of the time in those days, the lounge show was better than the showroom show,” Perrico says. “We want to give people an idea of what it was like in those days.”
Perrico, too, is working on a pair of Pop Strings CDs due in May. One is a live recording of the shows at Caesars, the other a release of his originals. He per forms his own compositions solely in shows at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts; the shows at Cleopatra’s Barge are his heavily influenced covers.
Perrico describes his composition style simply as, “Melody. I draw from all genres. Symphonic, jazz, R&B, pop.”
Perrico, who has a bachelor’s degree from his hometown school of Youngstown State University in Ohio and a master’s from UNLV, has plied his craft on a variety of stages. His days as a member of the touring Tommy Dorsey Orchestra from 1994-2001, rising to the ac t’s lead trumpet player and road manager, helped prepare him for any entertainment-industry challenges.
“We’re talking eight years, 46 weeks per year, all onenighters, with 17 guys on a bus,” Perrico says. “That’s where I honed my skills. We would play Lincoln Center one night, then the next night in Elks Club in Paducah, Kentucky. Whoever could pay us, got us.”
Other points of interest on Perrico’s resume: A six-year stint teaching jazz at UNLV, ending in 2011, and being an original member of Donny and Marie Osmond’s band when they set up at Flamingo Las Vegas in fall 2008. He also was cast in Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis” during its two-year run at Aria, ending in August 2012; he’s backed Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight and Toni Braxton; was original music director in “Pin Up” at the Stratosphere; and remains a performer in “The Rat Pack is Back” at Tuscany Suites’ Copa Room.
In late December and early January, Perrico performed and served as music director for Paul Shaffer & The ShafShifters shows at Cleopatra’s Barge. Shaffer had taken notice of Perrico through a series of YouTube clips of Pop Strings shows at Caesars, then hired Perrico to build a band.
But Pop Strings is Perrico’s core project, and it, too, is something of an evolution. Perrico’s skills as a musician, while impressive, are just the beginning of this venture.
“The most inventive thing Dave has done is think outside the box of just being a great trumpet player, which he is,” says longtime Vegas bandleader Lon Bronson, himself a highly acclaimed trumpet player. “There are 10 or 15 great ones in town, but this goes for any musician: You can become the greatest instrumentalist or singer in this city, and if you just sit and wait for the phone to ring, pretty lonely. David has managed to re-invent his own reality of how to be a professional musician through these two ensembles, and has become really successful.”
By February, Pop Strings was drawing standing-room-only crowds at the Barge, with a line snaking down the hallway waiting to get in. But the band has evolved, from its earliest performances.
“When we started with Pop Strings, I thought we might have like a jazz chamber ensemble,” Perrico said. “I remember, the first show, we actually duplicated songs we’d played at the top because I was still writing a set list for the show.”
Perrico’s band is an eclectic ensemble of sorts, with musicians drawn from production shows and residencies along the Strip. Drummer Pepe Jimenez backed Carlos Santana for two years ending in 2015. Viola player Crystal Yuan is a member of Celine Dion’s orchestra. Guitarist Steven Lee plays for Donny & Marie. Bassist Keith Nelson has toured with famed producer David Foster and played on Foster’s PBS concert specials from MGM Grand Garden Arena.
After working with several Las Vegas vocalists through the band’s run at Caesars, Perrico has found an effective combo in Kenny Fletch (a Vegas native, graduate of Las Vegas Academy, who was a top-32 finalist on “American Idol” in 2004) and Lily Arce, who swings at “O” at Bellagio and “Raiding the Rock Vault” at Vinyl at Hard Rock Hotel.
The kicker, here, is that Perrico and Arce are a couple offstage, too, engaged last October with wedding plans for sometime this year in Las Vegas. You would not necessarily detect this from the crowd, as the two do not make a point of presenting themselves as a romantic duo onstage (the only “tells” are when they occasionally gaze at each other through the set). But Arce delivers many of the show’s soaring numbers, including “Living On a Prayer,” “Separate Ways”and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey
“We smile and have fun, and make each other laugh, but really it’s strictly business onstage,” Perrico says. “There is a natural dynamic, and we just enjoy it that way.” As always, the writer is busy charting this chapter, too.