Michael Feinstein celebrates the Music of Mel Torme at Lincoln Center’s Jazz & Popular Song Series with Tedd Firth leading the American Songbook Orchestra with guest artists Billy Stritch and Catherine Russell.
by Linda Amiel Burns
Could there be a more beautiful setting for a concert than the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center where, behind the stage, a floor to ceiling window serves as the backdrop framing Central Park and the New York Skyline? Add to that listening to the “Music of Mel Torme” backed by the 17-piece American Songbook Orchestra lead by Tedd Firth, with the great Michael Feinstein hosting, singing and directing this edition of his Jazz & Popular Song Series. Two of the scheduled Guest Artists were not able to perform: Maddie Baillio came down with food poisoning, and Ann Hampton Calloway was on vocal rest due to a respiratory illness. However, in the tradition of “The Show Must Go On” Billy Stritch performed a multi-song medley with Michael that Maddie was going to do, and Catherine Russell joined the cast at the last moment.
Mel Torme was born in Chicago in 1925 to a Jewish family of Russian descent and was a child prodigy who sang and played drums professionally in local nightclubs at an early age. Michael called him a “musical renaissance man” who sang, composed, arranged, played several instruments, wrote five books, and also acted in films. According to Will Friedwald’s program notes “while extending the legacy of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Torme brought a new cool jazz sensibility to the Great American Songbook. He was among the greatest of all jazz singers, a veritable Art Tatum of the tonsils, and he was also a breathtaking balladeer; his way with a romantic love song and the sheer beauty of his voice earned him his nickname, “The Velvet Fog.”
Michael, as always, was a charming host and opened with a swinging rendition of “Shine On Your Shoes” (Dietz & Schwartz), then performed Torme’s signature song “Blue Moon” (Rodgers & Hart) as a slow tender ballad with only piano accompaniment. Michael sat down at the piano to sing the verse to “Just One of Those Things” and then he stood center stage as the orchestra joined in for an exciting arrangement of this Cole Porter standard. Michael then introduced Billy Stritch, one of the NY’s premier singer-pianists, and star of the national jazz and cabaret scenes. Billy sang one of Mel’s biggest hits from the 1950’s “Lulu’s Back In Town.” (Warren/Dubin). He also scored on the 1966 jazz waltz “Haven’t We Met” (Rankin/Batchelor) using only the quartet. Mel recorded “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Maschwitz/ Sherwin) eight times, so it must have been a favorite. The way that Billy interpreted that song, it became one of my favorites also. He ended his set with an exceptional arrangement of “Mountain Greenery.”(Rodgers/Hart).
Catherine Russell is a contemporary jazz and blues vocalist who continues her family’s legacy. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director and her mother, the late Carline Ray held degrees from both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music and performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II. Catherine’s “Time After Time” (Cahn/Styne) was sensational and she put a new jazzy twist on Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot.” One of the highlights of the evening was the pairing of two Arlen/Koehler standards, “Stormy Weather,” sung by Catherine, and “When The Sun Comes Out” with Michael. Then they sang the two songs together alternating lyrics and harmonies.
“Pennies From Heaven” (Burke/Johnston) was the perfect closer as Mel was a big fan of Bing Crosby whose version of this song topped the charts of the day for ten weeks in 1936. Billy and Catherine joined Michael for an encore of “The Christmas Song” written by Mel in 1946 with Bob Wells that became a classic.
This is Michael’s seventh season as director of this remarkable series and it will continue in 2017-2018 with tributes to The Rat Pack, Lena Horne and Count Basie. Don’t miss the upcoming tribute to the one and only Ella celebrating her centennial year with “Ella On My Mind” on June 8 and 9. Congratulations to Michael and his team for this wonderful series that brings the great American standards to appreciative audiences.