On The lady is a tramp, from a Tormé-Paich album from 1955, Tormé scats four-bar breaks with legendary alto saxophonist Art Pepper, trumpeter Don Fagerquist and trombonist Bob Enevoldsen. Will Friedwald writes: “Mel’s version is in a class by itself. It sounds like one of the more up-tempo instrumentals by Shorty Rogers and his Giants. He had no peer as a scat singer.”
In 1946 New York disc jockey Fred Robbins dubbed him ‘The Velvet Fog’. Tormé was not impressed, but the title fitted him like a glove. His controlled vibrato, clear diction and harmonically rich voice enabled him to shape the melody with the freedom which Ellington did in his extended works and Rodgers and Hammerstein with their Broadway musicals.
Tormé had no peer in either the field of pop or jazz. He was the ultimate singers’ singer, having reached the Olympian heights with three masterpieces: Lulu’s back in town (1956), Tormé Sings Fred Astaire (1956) and the superlative Swings Shubert Alley (1960). He was at his best before a live audience where he could outswing any other singer. He was the greatest, and his legacy ensures the continuing vitality of The Great American Songbook.
As was Sinatra who, for five years from 1945 in albums with his musical director Axel Stordahl, took the art of the ballad to its greatest heights as ‘The Voice’. Quoting Friedwald: “What made The Voice so remarkable is Sinatra and Stordahl’s use of a classical-style chamber music group with a rhythm section plus occasional classical woodwinds like oboes and flutes, combining the sounds of a jazz group at its most intimate with that of a classical ensemble at its most personable.”
Sinatra would complete five albums between 1947 and 1950 during his Columbia period: Songs by Sinatra, Christmas Songs by Sinatra, Frankly Sentimental, Dedicated to You, and Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra. Friedwald again: “The Voice was the purest on his original Columbia albums. Sinatra made sure the arrangements, mainly by Stordahl, flowed seamlessly. In the hands of a lesser vocalist-orchestrator team, you might feel like you’re hearing the same song eight times in a row but here it felt like a complete experience. This concept was the key element which helped the great songs endure.”
On Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Swing Easy, strings were used as part of the background, recalling Sy Oliver’s arrangements for Tommy Dorsey, when rhythmic fills by brass and reeds generated excitement. Like Ellington, Riddle had his key musicians engage in an ongoing dialogue with Sinatra. On both these and In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely, the dynamics are amazingly consistent, from song to song and album to album.
I can only agree with Friedwald when he writes: “May the music never end.” Amen to that!
Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra and many other great jazz vocalists can be heard regularly in After Hours, on Sundays at 10pm.
This article was featured in the February 2019 edition of the Fine Music Magazine. To become a subscriber, please click here, and gain access to many more informative pieces that are available in our magazines.