© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
If you are a hip, slick and cool Jazzer, you know that experiencing Mel Torme’s vocals are a real treat and that nobody ever wrote better Jazz arrangements than Marty Paich.
You also know that encountering Mel and Marty together is an ineffable musical happenstance.
And if you are in the mood to thank the Jazz Gods for leaving us the legacy of four - FOUR!!!! - albums that they made together from about 1955-1960, please be my guest.
Any thank them, too, for showcasing their talents ably aided and abetted by Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Art Pepper on alto sax, Jack Montrose, tenor sax, Victor Feldman, vibes, Barney Kessel, guitar, Joe Mondragon, bass, Mel Lewis on drums and a host of other West Coast Jazz musicians in their prime.
The music on the four recordings that Mel and Marty made together is a national treasure.
If you haven’t heard it, buy ‘em all and treat yourself to one of the most glorious listening experiences available in recorded Jazz.
Because Mel Torme was born 1925 [in Chicago], he missed the height of the band era, getting in only at its tail end. Like his colleagues Mickey Rooney Buddy Rich, and Sammy Davis, Jr., he began as a child performer who grew up into a high-energy performance dynamo.
Ben Pollack, the impresario-bandleader who was to Chicago whites what Fletcher Henderson was to New York blacks, put Torme in Chico Marx's all-juvenile orchestra when the pianist-comic fronted a dance band to pay off some gambling debts (and also toyed with the idea of building a similar kid band arour.: Torme).
Not long after Torme broke into pictures (he had previously played child parts on radio soaps) and a few month before his enlistment, he put together his first edition of the Mel-Tones and recorded with them on Jewell and Decca.
After the war, Torme rejoined the group, got them on Musicraft Records, where they made a series of sessions with and without Artie Shaw and brought the vocal group into modern jazz.
After "giving up the ghost" (Mel's term) with the Mel-Tones, Torme for a time seemed destined to become a "big-time bobby-socks idol" (Look magazine's term), when Carlos Gastel — who had helped make stars of Nat Cole and Peggy Lee, and put Stan Kenton and Anita O'Day together —moved him up to Capitol Records and MGM Pictures. He had hits, which incurred the resentment rather than the respect of the older showbiz communly (prior to the baby-boom young adults rarely became singing stars) at his ill-planned New York debut at the Copacabana.
If anything, Torme's records for Musicraft and the much bigger Capitol Records were too successful: They led his managers and A&R men to think Torme could be converted, like so many other talented artists, into a mere cog in the hit-making machinery. But he had, in William Blake's words, learned what was enough by first learning what was more than enough.
After a few years of bobby-sox idolatry, Torme decided to stick with smaller labels and classier music. His first long-playing record had also been the first Capitol LP, his own most spectacular stab at an extended composition, The California Suite (on Discovery DS-900), a thirty-five-plus-minute work that extols the virtues of the Sunshine State in eleven parts, all being songs but none fitting traditional thirty-two-bar AABA patterns.
Torme made his first conventional album, Musical Sounds Are the Best Songs [1954, Coral], in which he says goodbye to the big-band era in a set of nonsensical but very hard-swinging rhythm numbers. He followed Musical Sounds with lush ones on It's a Blue World [1955, Bethlehem], which shows how much better his ballad singing had gotten since the Musicrafts and Capitols.
The vo-cool era, then, begins at its highest point, Mel Torme and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette, which leads to four other Torme-Paich collaborations, the second also on Bethlehem, Mel Torme Sings Fred Astaire (1956), and the others on Verve: Torme 1958), a flawless collection of unlush ballads with a small string section; Back in Town (1959), the Mel-Tones' reunion album; and the climax, not only of the Torme-Paich relationship but of the whole cool genre, Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley (1960).
Torme today dislikes the sound of his voice on these records, and, in fact, once offered to remake them for the current corporate owners of the Bethlehem catalog. But even though his voice is a finer-tuned instrument in the late eighties, I doubt that anything could improve these records, especially the first and the last. The original Dek-Tette recording set the greatest diversity of tempo and on more adventurous works such as "The Blues" [which is an excerpt from Duke Ellington’s extended suite Black, Brown and Beige] in which he translates the multileveled Ellingtonian sound into multileveled Torme-Paich sound.
On "Lullaby of Birdland," Torme gradually flies farther and farther out, not by Ella-vating himself off the nearest chord progression but by building a scaffold of scat (and voice-horn interplay with the Dek-Tette) that he can climb as high as he wants.
All twelve songs on Shubert Alley, by contrast, come from the same source, the book-shows of post-Oklahoma! Broadway, and Torme and Paich reconfigure them all into the same medium-bright tempo. All have been thoroughly re-composed so that the familiar patterns of vocal-band-vocal and band-vocal-band are exceptions rather than rules, and only the closing chart, "Lonely Town" (the one track on Shubert Alley to use a piano), could have been sung by any other singer on any other album.
On two numbers, Torme and Paich postulate on the possibility of blues devices in other kinds of material, as when Torme gathers momentum by repeating the penultimate six notes of "Just in Time," over and over without the final tonic, until it assumes the shape of a Count Basie-Joe Williams blues, and when in "Too Darn Hot" they have trombonist Frank Rosolino and altoist Art Pepper not wait for the "instrumental" second chorus to solo but instead take their eight-bar turns after each of Torme's opening A sections—in other words, shaping a standard as if it were Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow."
Interpolations, of the kind that will eventually become a Torme perennial, figure on almost ever track, though they're not usually made by the singer but by the band behind him, as on the second chorus of "Once in Love With Amy," where Torme sings the first A and the Dek-Tette play "Makin' Whoopee," switching to "Easy Living" for the second A and also when Torme sings the Latinate "Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets" and Paich and crew pay homage to Gerry Mulligan by way of "Bernie's Tune."
Its virtues could be extolled ad infinitum but the point is that the strength of the album does not lie in and of its individual elements, nor do certain tracks stand out above the others. Instead, from start to finish, Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley is a masterpiece. Neither the vo-cool specifically nor vocalizing in general got any better than this, though a few contenders have come along in the interim.”
Joseph Laredo insert notes to Mel Torme with the Marty Paich Dek-Tette [Bethlehem/Avenue Jazz R2 75732
Joseph Loredo insert notes to Mel Torme Sings Fred Astaire [Bethlehem/Avenue Jazz R2 79847]
Mel Torme original liner notes to Back in Town: Mel Torme with the Meltones [Jazz Heritage CD 515088L]
Lawrence D. Stewart insert notes to Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley with The Marty Paich Orchestra [Verve CD 821-581-2]
Will Friedwald, Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond.