Mel Torme and the sound of American pops

When Mel Torme performed this year in Boston at the Metropolitan Center, it demonstrated Torme's skill not only as an interpreter of the popular song, but as one of the greatest jazz singers around. I found it hard to believe that a friend commented after the concert that Torme didn't like being classified as a jazz singer.

So when I met him here recently -- he had just done another fine concert with baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and pianist George Shearing -- I wanted to know if what I had heard was true.

"Well," he replied, "what ism a jazz singer, really. I'm not sure that there is such a thing as a jazz singer. The minute that Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah [ Vaughan], or myself -- the minute we involve ourselves or invest time in singing pop tunes, even if we sing them with a jazz inflection or conception, we're really pop singers.

"All of us are influenced to some degree by jazz. I think even country and western singers are affected by jazz -- it's just to a considerably lesser degree than people like myself of Ella. But a pure jazz singer? I prefer to think that I'm a jazz-oriented or jazz- influenced singer, rather than a jazz singer. I don't like labels, anyway."

And yet George Wein, the well-known jazz festival entrepreneur, referred to Mel recently as "the preeminent jazz singer of our age at this point." Wein feels that it's the kind of music Mel grew up listening to that determined his direction.

"He told me," said Mel, "'You grew up on the big bands, on the singers that were involved in that kind of singing, and those were your greatest influences.' And he's absolutely right."

In addition to siinging, Torme plays piano and is a skilled drummer -- Buddy Rich was and is his all-time favorite.

". . . he's the top. I learned just from listening to him. I play more like Buddy than anybody -- not nearly in the same league, of course, but who is?"

So Torme the singer has brought all of these various musical styles with him and has come out with his own unique one, call it jazz or whatever. Outspoken and individualistic, torme, although he appreciates his early influences and what they've done for him, decries the tendency of the younger singers and instrumentalists to become carbon copies of the artists they admire.

"During the bebop era, for every Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker there were scores of people who were just imitating them. When you get down to the nitty-gritty there were a lot of impersonators, even in the swing era. Benny Goodman came up with the riffs, and then almost every other clarinetist, with the exception maybe of Artie Shaw, followed down that path."

And yet there are others, like Mel, who have absorbed from several different directions and still managed to make their own distinct contribution.

"You can be eclectic and distill what you listen to, and then turn around and mold it to your own image so that you're really not imitating anybody. I don't think that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I think imitation is the road to ruin, as far as being a really good original performer is concerned."

Among the imitators and impersonators, Torme believes some of the worst offenders are the so-called "scat singers" who sing fast notes in imitation of a musical instrument.

"Scat singing is a very, very specialized art, because you've got to have musicians' ears. You really have to transmogrify yourself into a human instrument. And it's even tougher for a singer, and I'll tell you why: A singer is always concentrating on intonation. If a guy's got his horn and he pushes valve one, valve two, valve three down, chances are pretty good that he's going to be in tune. But with a singer . . . well, that's what separates the wheat from the chaff.

"I fly a single-engine airplane. The impertinence of thinking that I could get behind the yoke of a 747 and safely fly it from New York to Los Angeles is about the same as some singers thinking, 'Oh, what is there to scat singing? -- anybody can scat sing.'"

Torme feels that a lot of people categorize him as a scat singer, but he also realizes that a portion of his audiences sees him quite differently.

"For all those years it was the 'velvet fog' nonsense, and then so many people have seen me basically in the Fairmonts of the world, and the Sahara Hotel, and the Sands. But I still do scat in those places. I do a tribute to Ella -- 'Lady, Be Good' with a big long scat thing that closes my act.But they also hear me do tunes by Paul Williams, Eric Carmen, Johnnie Mercer, Jerome Kern."

At the close of the New York Jazz Festival, Mel Torme embarked on a European tour, covering festivals in Nice, London, Paris, The Hague, and Sweden, and he'll be appearing with George Shearing at Marty's here for the month of November. He's anxious to continue working with Shearing and Gerry Mulligan:

"It is very obvious to the audience that we all tremendously admire each other and there's nothing forced or phony about it. When I site there and hear Mulligan play, or I sit quietly and George is doing 'On a clear Day' or one of those things, I go bananas. I really admire those guys -- I think it really works."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.