Peter Nero: The Laughter and The Challenges
AAJ: For a while, you collaborated with singer Mel Tormé.
PN: Not on a recording as such, but when I did the score for the film, Sunday in New York, which was in 1963, there was a song intended for a male jazz singer, and there were two guys who might do it well: Mel Tormé and Buddy Greco. The film studio went for Mel because he was a bigger name at the time, but for me it was his phrasing that was the most important thing.
AAJ: What's it like working with vocalists like Tormé, or with Sinatra for that matter? These are guys who know music well, they aren't just crooners. Same with Jack Jones, who you had on board recently with the Philly Pops.
PN: Jones brings in his own rhythm section, though, including the pianist, when he works with our orchestra. When I go on the road, I bring my own rhythm section, too, and I conduct for myself. Jack doesn't conduct, but his pianist, Mike Renzi, is a great jazz player, number one in New York in terms of gigs. I've conducted with him playing and I like to hear him up close and watch him. When he plays, he's very serious but what he's playing is so witty. That's also the way I hear Horowitz on the Rachmaninoff "Third." In the second movement, the scherzo, there's a thing that sounds like a drunk hiccupping and staggering on the street. It's a light-hearted and witty interpretation. Other players do it too cut and dry. I think that Rachmaninoff meant it to be played the way Horowitz did. In the Chopin "G Minor Ballade," which I studied when I was younger, there's an internal voice in there which Chopin puts right in your face. Not all pianists bring out that line but Horowitz showed us where it belonged.
AAJ: Humor is a significant part of music, going back to Haydn and Mozart. I'm reviewing a recording by Ximo Tebar, a jazz guitarist from Spain, based on the music of Erik Satie, the French composer. It is serious music but it is very humorous in sections. Both Satie and Tebar know how to use music to make listeners laugh.
PN: How does Martial Solal sit with you?
AAJ: I'm not familiar with him.
PN: You've got to hear him. He's 80-years old now. He appeared at the Village Vanguard a few years ago. He's French. He plays solo piano and is a phenomenon of crossover.
AAJ: Did you ever hear of Bernard Peiffer?
PN: I never had personal contact with him, but I heard him playa very interesting classically-trained jazz pianist.
PN: I heard him when I was at the Hickory House. He had tremendous chops.
Times Spent with Sinatra
AAJ: What are some of the most memorable moments of your career, in your own terms, not what other people might think?
PN: If you ask me a question like that, I don't know where to start. I could mention probably a hundred of them. Certainly up there at the top was working in the same show with Frank Sinatra. I actually stayed at his home for two days with six to eight other performers. This was a benefit in Palm Springs for his wife's favorite charity, the Palm Springs Children's Hospital. Quincy Jones opened up with a couple of big band pieces. The master of ceremonies was Roger Moore, the actor. Then Buddy Greco, and then Diane Schuur. Mel Tormé was also in the show. That was only the first half. The second half was Liza Minelli, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank. And we all got to stay at his compound.
AAJ: Everyone wants to know about Frank Sinatra.
PN: I got to know him pretty well. I was always invited to come to see him back stage when he performed in Vegas. Part of his contract at Caesar's was that he had to sit in the lounge for a while, so people in the casino could see him. I remember before one performance, he told me he was studying with the opera singer, Robert Merrill. He was very serious about his music. As the years went by, however, he was burning his vocal chords out. Nevertheless, he never lost his core of fans. One time, I was supposed to do five days with him at Radio City Music Hall. The morning after opening night, I got a call that Sammy Davis Jr. died. Sinatra got on his plane, went back to L.A., and canceled the rest of his concerts at Radio City. They re-booked him in June, and I was asked to play, but I had a commitment at Westbury Music Theater and couldn't get out of it.
When Sinatra was around, I was so nervous I could hardly play. In the early '60s, I was performing at the Hollywood Bowl, and I got a call from Jilly, who said, "Frank is having a going away party for Rosalind Russell at her house. She's moving to Jackson Hole, Wyoming." That's before anyone heard of that place. I met the whole crew of Frank's cronies, Kirk Douglas and all. I sat in on piano at that party. I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I was so petrified. I was overly concerned with "What's Frank gonna think?" He was a maven, no doubt. He knew what he wanted from rhythm sections. Fortunately, I didn't have to accompany him. That would have really worried me. When do you fill in, and when not? I never accompanied Sinatra on piano.