Being a “left coaster,” I was not familiar with the name of Billy Stritch, so this has been a most felicitous introduction. As musical supervisor, pianist and arranger for Liza Minnelli, Stritch is probably better known on the cabaret circuit. But, as attested to by being named “Best Jazz Instrumentalist” by the Manhattan Association of Clubs and by this live outing, recorded at Jazz Standard in New York City, there’s nothing wrong with Stritch’s jazz chops, either as pianist or vocalist. His playing is swinging and lyrical, if occasionally a tad florid, while his voice is mellow and supple with clear articulation, spot-on intonation and smooth, effortless phrasing. In addition, he is very capably backed by two consummate professionals; listen, for example, to the expressive solos on “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,” “Green Dolphin Street,” and “Crazy She Calls Me.”
The opener is taken at a brisk clip, faster than usual but cleanly. “Red Sails” is an instrumental, melding smoothly into the beautiful, under-recognized Ivan Lins composition “Sails,” with English lyrics by Gene Lees. Mel Tormé has had an obvious influence on Stritch, and with the former’s “Born to Be Blue,” Stritch pays respectful homage. The Gershwins’ “But Not for Me” is another lush instrumental; the chorus of “Mountain Greenery” is brightly up-tempo, with some scatting and re- harmonizing.
Kaper’s trusty standard “Green Dolphin Street” swings hard while resting Stritch’s pipes. Three tunes in the set bear Carmen McRae’s stamp: “I Can’t Believe...,” “Kellaway and Bergmans’ “I Have the Feeling...,” and the Brasilian “Upside Down” (Djavan’s “Flor de Lis”), with English lyrics by Regina Neves, the emotional high point of the album.
The tempo cools back down with “Crazy She Calls Me,” a lovely, fresh ballad that is sensitively done. With the exception of a new jazz waltz entitled “How Can I Lose You?”* and Arlen and Koehler’s “I’ve Got the World...,” it’s an all-Gershwin finale, coming down the home stritch, er, stretch. When it comes to tuneful, jazzable melodies, how much better can one do than that?
So, if a night out at a club for vocal jazz is your cup of tea, here’s your instant “pekoe in a jewel case.” Just add your favorite liquid refreshment, your favorite honey, sit back, and enjoy!
* Note: ”How Can I Lose You?” has some quite clever lyrics, such as: “No one should always lose; can’t I find some kind of peace? Nobody owns the blues, but I have a long-term lease,” and “Once I was quite a guy, confident, quiet and strong. Actually, that’s a lie; I’ve been feelin’ this way all along...”
The Best Is Yet to Come; Medley: Red Sails in the Sunset/Sails; Born to Be Blue; I Can