Billy Stritch Sings the Mel Tormé Songbook at The Pheasantry

The Mel Tormé Songbook
Songs by Cole Porter, Bronislau Kaper & Ned Washington, Ray Henderson, Lew Brown & Buddy DeSylva, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Walter Donaldson, Mel Tormé & Robert Wells, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II, Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz, Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin & E. Y. Harburg, Willard Robison & Larry Conley, Peter Nero & Carroll Coates, Richard Whiting, Haven Gillespie & Seymour Simons, Stephen Sondheim, Jack Strachey, Eric Maschwitz & Manning Sherwin, and Harry Warren & Al Dubin

Billy Stritch (singer & piano) with Dave Olney (double bass)


Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 17 August, 2011
Venue: The Pheasantry, King’s Road, Chelsea, London

Mel Tormé (1925-99). Photograph: Alan LightMel Tormé (1925-99) was more than just a singer. He was also a jazz composer and an arranger, a skilled drummer, an actor in radio and films, a television host, and the author of five books. Starting-out he was an infant prodigy who from the age of one year could stand up in his pram and sing along with the radio. His first engagement was at the age of four with the Coon-Sanders Band in Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant. He got to sing Walter Donaldson’s ‘You’re driving me crazy’, won the $15 prize and became a permanent fixture. From the age of eight to sixteen he was a child actor on radio, during which time he started to write songs, the first of which, ‘Lament to love’, was a hit for Harry James. He later worked with the Chico Marx band as drummer, singer and arranger. Mel Tormé became one of the greatest jazz musicians of the twentieth-century.
Billy Stritch pays tribute to Tormé in a brilliant set of songs associated with him, and Stritch is no slouch when it comes to performing what are classics of the Great American Songbook. Tormé had the ultimate in good taste when choosing his material: in the 1950s, with the arrival of rock ’n’ roll (he called it “three chord manure”) he found it difficult to find good new material so relied on jazz arrangements of mediocre pop songs. Luckily for Stritch he can choose the best of Tormé and gives his own interpretation of the feelings that Tormé may have expressed in his performances. This is no slavish imitation of Tormé’s vocal delivery, although there are at times hints of that voice coming through, wittingly or not.
Billy Stritch. Photograph: www.billystritch.comThe set opens with a medley of ‘Just one of those things’ (Cole Porter) and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’, which were perfect for Tormé’s laid-back style. His idol was Ella Fitzgerald and he might be thought the male equivalent of that great singer. (Somebody once dubbed him “The Velvet Fog” on account of his particularly smooth sound, which Tormé often referred to as “The Velvet Frog”.) The voice was attuned to the great American standards and Stritch captures both their spirit and the times in which they were written.
Rodgers & Hart’s ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Mountain Greenery’ were great hits for Tormé and it’s good to hear Stritch reprising them in his inimitable way. Not only is he a notable interpreter but he is also a brilliant pianist and raconteur. The set opens with Tormé’s first hit, at age four, ‘You’re driving me crazy’, leading into ‘Born to be blue’ which Mel wrote with Robert Wells. Their most famous song together was ‘The Christmas Song’ (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”) of which Tormé was not particularly fond but which was an immediate hit for Nat ‘King’ Cole and Tormé himself. The Jerome Kern/Hammerstein songs ‘Nobody else but me’ and ‘The folks who live on the hill’ are other highlights together with ‘Lulu’s back in town’ to ‘Live alone and like it’ by Stephen Sondheim, not forgetting ‘Breezin’ along with the beeeze’ and ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’. This is one helluva evening of great songs superbly interpreted by artists of the highest calibre.

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