Mel Tormé (1925–1999) was the Art Tatum of singers: a daredevil improviser with equally flawless chops and remarkable harmonic smarts, he would take a tune and break it down into 1,000 glistening arpeggios, then put it back together in a way that often improved on the original. Like Tatum, he could do all this without losing the thread of the melody, and with the added dimension of using his musicality to bring out the meaning of the words. Frequently compared to Ella Fitzgerald — which he considered a tremendous compliment — if Tormé wasn’t the greatest male pure jazz singer of all time (after Louis Armstrong), it’s hard to imagine who was.
Although he never lived in New York, as far as New Yorkers were concerned, Tormé owned the summer: He provided the opening night salvo for the annual JVC Jazz Festival for more than a dozen years. In exactly a decade since Tormé’s death, however, JVC inexplicably has not mounted a tribute concert to him. That gap was finally filled this year, by an institution where, to the best of my knowledge, Tormé never worked. For the climax of 92nd Street Y’s 2008–09 season, its Lyrics & Lyricists series, presented “Sunday in New York: Mel Tormé in Words and Music.”
During his lifetime, Tormé wore many hats at once. One of the all-time great singers of both Jazz and the Great American Songbook (he either scat up a storm or broke your heart with a love song), he also enjoyed, for a time, a parallel career as a composer (he could write either words or music, or both, as the occasion demanded), and as an arranger and orchestrator for himself and others (with a famous tenure as writer of special material for Judy Garland). In addition to working in movies and TV as both a singing and a straight dramatic actor, Tormé also wrote screenplays, novels, biographies, and a memoir. He carried out everything — even his extra-musical activities — with a kind of harmonic ingenuity that combined to brilliant effect being a savant and somewhat of a smart aleck.
The first thing that the Y did right was note the need for at least five singers to do justice to Tormé. The exceptional pianist-vocalist Billy Stritch has been carrying the torch for Tormé for some time now, having been a major booster since well before he opened for the singer at his 1988 Carnegie Hall concert. Three years ago, Stritch began touring with a tribute show, which played Birdland and was recorded for Blair Lake Music. With the aid of two young female singers (La Tanya Hall and Hilary Kole), a second piano-vocalist (Johnny Rodgers) and the prodigiously gifted Marilyn Maye (plus drummer Mark McLean and bassist David Finck — a singer’s favorite), Stritch has expanded his one-man show into a full-cast production.
The problem with saluting a singer who specialized in the Great American Songbook (rather than writing his own songs, which Torme occasionally did) is that, unless you specifically try to impersonate him, you’re usually working with a bunch of familiar songs that everybody sang. One of Tormé’s signature tunes over the decades was “Blue Moon,” but that Rodgers and Hart standard is so widely recorded that hardly anybody instantly identifies it with Tormé. With Tormé, however, this is less of a problem, because the singer known as “The Velvet Fog” created a distinctive library of arrangements and routines. “Just One of Those Things” may not evoke Tormé, but, for an opener, Stritch reprised Tormé’s whole routine, which comically extends the coda (“simply one of those casual things…”) and, from there, travels directly into “On Green Dolphin Street.”
It wouldn’t be right to salute Tormé with the usual musical theater and cabaret singers who typically populate the L&L stages (not that there’s anything wrong with that), so Stritch recruited his cast from Birdland rather than from Broadway. Hall turned in a suitably torchy “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” with an extended verse that would have pleased Tormé, who described himself as a “tune detective.”
Kole sounded sultry rather than innocent on “Just Imagine,” and shone most brightly, as she always does, on the straight-ahead swingers like “Cheek to Cheek.” Rodgers revisited Tormé’s 1962 soul-styled hit “Comin’ Home Baby” (an unlikely item of the Tormé canon to re-create), and, just before midnight, Maye provided the finale in the form of the propulsive jazz waltz “Haven’t We Met?” which she contrasted with “When the World Was Young” in a more old-fashioned triple meter. (The actual closer, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” was sabotaged by the lousy idea of taking a super-intimate love song and trying to expand it into an ensemble number.)
Still, the greatest benefit of the additional voices was the opportunity to hear one of Tormé’s classic vocal group arrangements, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” which the singer originally recorded in 1946 with his five-voice combo, The Mel-Tones, and Artie Shaw’s full orchestra. It’s an amazing amalgam of swing and modern jazz, which quotes liberally from Tadd Dameron’s newly minted Cole Porter variation, “Hot House.” One wishes that Stritch and company had treated us to a few more of these, such as The Mel-Tones’ no less classic mix of “It Happened in Monterey” and “Ramona.” Together, Stritch and Rodgers sang the counterpoint from Tormé’s 1962 arrangement of “Walkin’ Shoes,” which, via overdubs, the singer originally had recorded in a duo with himself.
Stritch’s solo re-creations of Tormé’s “book” were, however, the central focus of the evening, the most ambitious being the singer and occasional songwriter’s tune “County Fair,” from the 1948 movie “So Dear to My Heart.” This six-minute epic is practically a song cycle unto itself, which sets Rodgers and Hammerstein-type subject matter to Dizzy Gillespie-style bebop chords. It seemed clear that the qualities Stritch admires in Tormé’s creations may be those most directly inspired by Tatum: the knack for writing witty quotes (both melodically and lyrically) and even merging together several songs the way that “You’re Driving Me Crazy” morphs into “Moten Swing.” “Lulu’s Back in Town” begins with a famous vamp that not only rises chromatically, but also shouts out to other standard songs built around female names: “If You Knew Susie,” “My Little Margie,” “Dinah.” (Stritch noticeably did not include Tormé’s revision of “Anthropology,” which he dedicated to all the “Jewish bebop fans” in the house.)
Along the way, the company also performed three of Tormé’s own songs (bypassing his extended work, “California Suite”), including the minor key juvenilia “Lament to Love,” and the standards “Born To Be Blue” and “The Christmas Song,” the latter done as the obligatory 92nd Street Y sing-along. On top of everything else, Tormé was an outstanding songwriter, but, as Stritch aptly demonstrated, his greatest gift to music was serving as the Tatum of the tonsils.
Will Friedwald was the jazz reviewer for the New York Sun and is the author of seven books on music and popular culture.