As a fan of today’s free jazz, I must admit an unashamed devotion to several artists considered square (O.K. draw the box with your fingers). Growing up with my parents favorites Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Mel Torme their music made an indelible impression somewhere deep in my brain. Long after my parents stopped buying 78s and LPs, I cheered the resurgence of Torme and Bennett’s careers. But where Tony was more a pop singer (a vocal forerunner of Bruce Springsteen), Mel was a jazz singer. The ease of his delivery was as comforting as home cooking.
With a career spanning nearly fifty-years the singer/drummer/composer/arranger saved much of his best for the last decade of his life. He co-wrote “The Christmas Song” at age 19, and was a star for most of his 74 years. Torme made some exciting music with Marty Paich’s orchestra in the mid-fifties and much of it has been re-issued on Bethlehem Records. He returned to Paich’s Dek-Tette for a session and tour in the late-1980s. The two records produced for Concord, Reunion and In Concert Tokyo are reissued here.
Paich’s arrangements make for a tight-swinging affair. His augmented (by percussionists) 11-piece band includes the West Coast trumpeter Jack Sheldon, saxophonist Ken Peplowski, and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The band takes on a couple of Donald Fagan (of Steely Dan) compositions. That is, Paich with the Velvet Fog’s voicing turn pop into jazz. They even conquer Chick Corea’s “Spain.” But what stands out in both the studio session and the live date is the delight of Torme’s delivery. Fifty years of seemingly effortless elocution was his life’s work. In Japan he sang “The Christmas Song” probably for the millionth time, yet I’d rather hear Mel than any of those flavor-of-the-week ‘stars’ that appeared on television last month. Few singers have the presence Torme had fronting a large ensemble. His voice and career are larger than life.