Professionalism, I suppose, implies the ability to perform to the best of one’s ability in spite of whatever obstacles are placed in one's path. In June 1977, when the late Mel Tormé recorded the songs that comprise The London Sessions,
he relates that he was nervous, apprehensive, and nearly exhausted after a long flight from New York City, and preoccupied by thoughts of a soon-to-be-held divorce trial that would end his ten-year marriage to an Englishwoman.
Nevertheless, Mel was in the studio at the appointed time, ready to record with unfamiliar musicians, conducted by a man he’d been introduced to only moments before, and supervised by a recording engineer whose name he’d never even heard. Mel looked so tired, he writes in the liner notes, that “among the first questions asked... was whether I felt I was in shape to go ahead with the plan to record with the orchestra, or should we scrap [that] plan and track my voice later, which is basically the way most pop artists... make records these days.” But Mel, always the consummate professional, said he considered that method too mechanical and would record with the orchestra as planned.
Of course, he rose superbly to the occasion, as he invariably did, and no trace of weariness or loss of focus is evident in the finished product, on which Tormé places his singular stamp on seven contemporary songs, one from Broadway (Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”) and another from Tin Pan Alley (“Bye Bye Blackbird”). The orchestra, reinforced by the presence of alto saxophonist Phil Woods, is splendid, conductor / arranger Chris Gunning inspired, and that anonymous recording engineer, Keith Grant, makes sure the package is handsomely wrapped.
With the exception of “Clowns” (which embodies the first of several bracing solos by Woods), the session is balladic all the way, canvassing Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love Is Fair,” Evan McColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Janis Ian’s “Stars,” Paul Williams’ “Ordinary Fool” and a medley of “When the World Was Young” and “Yesterday When I Was Young.” Even the usually gregarious “Blackbird,” which closes the program, flaps its wings slowly while Tormé gently caresses the lyric and Woods’ sensuous alto provides a colorful backdrop.
Tormé’s voice is strong, his intonation sure, and he makes every lyric seem fresh and alive. In the end, that’s what a professional does. Tormé writes about the special meaning some of the words had for him, coming as they did at such a turbulent time in his life, such as “stars they come and go” (from “Stars”), “I always think with my heart” (from “Ordinary Fool”), “love’s a crazy game” (from “All in Love Is Fair”) and “losing my timing this late in my career” (from “Send in the Clowns”). But the phrase that touched me most, now that Mel is no longer with us, is the poignant refrain from Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young”: “...there are so many songs in me that won’t be sung...” Happily, many of those Mel did sing have been preserved on disc for the pleasure of generations to come including The London Sessions, wonderfully recorded in Dual Layered Hybrid Super Audio.
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