Swings Shubert Alley
Velvet Fog in the Footlights
In the '50s, every saloon singer and jazz crooner had at least a few show tunes in his or her back pocket. The sashaying melodies and brainy structures of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and the other Broadway bigs were acid tests for aspiring song-stylists—if you couldn't make a classic like Comden and Green's "Just in Time" enchanting, you probably shouldn't be charging admission.
Mel Tormé understood this. By 1960, he'd issued several well-regarded records that established him as a jazz-leaning craftsman with good showbiz instincts. Still, his approach was a bit tame; he'd earned that "velvet Fog" nick-name not just for the enveloping quality of his voice, but because he'd stripped all harshness and abrasion from his game.
This collection, his fifth collaboration with the masterly arranger Marty Paich, is Tormé's most convincing attempt at letting his inner swinger loose. Where many singers treat big-band backing as ornamentation, Tormé gets right next to the horns, positioning his voice somewhere between the trumpets and trombones, where he can send the music sideways by dipping out of key for a split second. Tormé's sometimes blithe, sometimes campy enthusiasm spreads to the soloists, and on "Whatever Lola Wants" both alto saxo-phonist Art Pepper and the late, criminally underappreciated trombone virtuoso Frank Rosolino take spirited turns that spice up the endeavor. Even here, though, Tormé never sounds like he's showing off. His art is in his little curlicue twists and (very) brief scatted ad-libs, animated gestures that slyly enhance the swing while making clear he's not lost in any kind of fog.
Released: 1960, Verve
Key Tracks: "On the Street Where You Live," "A Sleepin' Bee," "Whatever Lola Wants."
Catalog Choice: Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette
Next Stop: Tony Bennett: The Essential Tony Bennett
After That: Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin' Lovers
Book Pages: 779–780