Michael Feinstein: The Music of Mel Tormé

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Michael Feinstein

The Music of Mel Tormé

Appel Room, NYC, May 4, 2017

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Billy Stritch, Catherine Russell, Michael Feinstein
Photos: Lawrence Sumulong

Under the expert Direction of M.D./arranger Tedd Firth, a bouncy, bright version of “A Shine on Your Shoes” opens this, the third in Michael Feinstein’s 2017 celebratory series for Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Tonight we’re paying tribute to an amazing Renaissance Man, Melvin Howard Tormé (1925-1999), vocalist, arranger, orchestrator, musician, and songwriter. In the vocal arena, he could do anything, second only to Frank Sinatra.” (Michael Feinstein)

Tormé, we’re told unsurprisingly, did not appreciate comparison to Ol’ Blue Eyes. He did value comparison to Ella Fitzgerald.
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“He could scat,” our host points out, one of the few skills Sinatra did not have.

The honoree wrote his first song at 15, toured with Chico Marx (yes, the Marx brother) as a vocalist at 17, and started the singing group The Meltones in the 1940s. He was a nightclub headliner, appeared in several films, and notably worked with Judy Garland as arranger/orchestrator on her television series.

The relationship began with warmth, but she later referred to the exacting musician as “Mel Torment.” Whether as soloist or M.D., Tormé was never in doubt of exactly what he wanted and how it should be expressed.

“Blue Moon” emerges as if Feinstein were singing to himself, quiet and a bit grave. The vocalist strolls and stops, reflecting, his single gesture a raised arm on “without a dream.” Sentiment is enhanced by closing tenor notes in the first of many beautiful arrangements.

“Just One of Those Things” is next with Feinstein at the piano.

When Firth takes over, tempo goes from foot-tapping to speedy swing borne on lots of brass.
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Feinstein comments introducing his first special guest: “Without him, this would not be an appropriate tribute. Billy Stritch is another multi-hyphenate who does it all.” Stritch offers a breezy “Lulu’s Back in Town” with a twinkle in his eye, right hand rising from the keys to gesture; “Haven’t We Met?

,” which swings like a hammock; and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” a textured 1940s slow dance with occasional flutter of the bird on top keys and horns overlapping like brushstrokes. (Another complimentary nod to Firth’s arrangement.) Phrasing is impeccable. Stritch was, he tells us, vocally inspired by Tormé.

Here, our program lists the appearance of a vocalist who fell ill. Stepping up to the plate, Stritch then joins Feinstein in a Tormé medley written for Cleo Laine and himself. Interweaving what seems to be 15-20 songs—”Sweet Sue” with “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Take the A Train” with “Watch What Happens,” “Fly Me to the Moon” with “Autumn Leaves” and “Yesterday, When I Was Young”—the two consummate musicians display absolute focus and infectious pleasure during what sounds like a musical challenge set by Tormé for himself.

This evening’s second special guest, also stepping in for another, is Catherine Russell.

A captivating “Time After Time” with trumpet and trombones almost whispering (no mutes) is enacted by the performer as if every word were meaningful. Her “Too Darn Hot,” slightly slower than usual, arrives with a step, step, hip pat, and fanning hand. A wah-wah trumpet agrees. “Too da-ah-ahn hahhhtttt” she sings languidly. Graceful and palpably warm, the artist’s brights and darks are seamless. “We listened to Mel Tormé on The Make Believe Ballroom [a popular radio show] growing up.”

The Tormé-composed “The Christmas Song” (with Bob Wells) serves as finale, with a buoyant, three-part rendition of his signature “Sunday in New York” acting as coda. Bridged with illuminating text by Will Friedwald, this evening was one of highest level talent having a thoroughly good time. As did we.

NEXT: Michael Feinstein: Ella on My Mind on June 8.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.