Stritch Tackles Tormè
by David Cuthbert
New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 14, 2007
To walk into the showroom at Le Chat Noir is like time-tripping back into a swank Manhattan boite from a 1950s movie. Currently completing the illusion is singer-pianist Billy Stritch, the epitome of jazzy sophistication as he sings the songs of Mel Tormè.
Stritch summons echoes of "The Velvet Fog" in his phrasing, pitch, vocalese and Tormè's own arrangements. There is a musical affinity between them, but ultimately Stritch is his own man, in his vigorous piano style and melodic and tempo variations, more than ably backed by bass player Al Bernard.
Stritch opens with a gently swinging version of "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block," a Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin- E.Y. Harburg collaboration, with clever, intricate lyrics. The Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz "Shine on Your Shoes" arrangement is pretty much the same one Fred Astaire sang and danced to in the 1953 film "The Band Wagon," but builds to a much jazzier finale.
Tormè's life is sketched in casual fashion, leading up to a great personal anecdote payoff. Stritch keeps his patter disarming, musically astute and positive, although he does mention Tormè's "healthy ego," which is putting it mildly.
Stritch errs when he says MGM's 1947 remake of "Good News" was Tormè's first film. He made teenage musicals and comedies earlier than that ("Higher and Higher," "Pardon My Rhythm," "Let's Go Steady," "Junior Miss"). But "Lucky in Love," from "Good News," is as close as Stritch gets to a pure Tormè sound. He croons Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon" to audible sighs and "You, You're Driving Me Crazy" gets special treatment, since it launched Tormè's career as a four-year-old prodigy.
Tormè's own "Born to Be Blue" is, as Stritch notes, unusually worldly for a 21-year-old to have written, a jazz ballad of lost love, setting the stage for the exquisite likes of "Cottage for Sale" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." For an oddity, there's "Let's Go Fishin'," a melody Duke Ellington wrote for the 1959 film "Anatomy of a Murder" to which Peggy Lee later provided a droll lyric.
Stritch seems to have the most fun with the driving "Too Close for Comfort" (from "Mr. Wonderful"), Peter Nero's cool, pop-jazz theme from the 1963 movie comedy "Sunday in New York," and Rodgers and Hart's effervescent "Mountain Greenery," which Stritch has recorded twice. He sings lyrics I've never heard before, sounding as if he never wants the song to end.
Sitting next to us was Alice Regan, who said wistfully, "Isn't it nice to hear lyrics again that are poetry?"
It is indeed. Don't miss Stritch, who has just two more shows at Le Chat: tonight at 8 and Sunday at 6. Call (504) 581-5812.