Michael Feinstein at Jazz at Lincoln Center: Saluting Ella and Mel

BY ROB LESTER***** On June 8 &9 —hooray!—Michael Feinstein will honor Ella Fitzgerald as he did for Mel Tormé  earlier (Review herein). Singers Nicole Henry, Jessie Mueller, and South African vocalist Vuyo Sotashe will be on the bill in The Big Apple’s Appel Room  again to pay homage to Ella in the 100th anniversary of her birth. Joining him again: The Tedd Firth Big Band. Ella, the First Lady of Song, was the one singer Mel said, in a late-career interview, that he really wanted to record with.  Alas, she died in 1996 (also in June).  It in this first week of June in 1999 that we lost the great singer/musician, Mr. Tormé. Michael Feinstein saluted the contributions and songbook of this superb artist at one of his recent shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room.  Despite the disappointment that a couple of the singers booked for this multi-performer concert became unavailable due to illness, the resourceful Mr. Feinstein, seemingly unflustered, pulled musical rabbits out of one of the many hats he wears and was able to come up with a more than able substitute in the jazzy, juicy stylings presented by Catherine Russell. And Billy Stritch was sensational, with his planned pieces and filling in for an additional tricky duet segment.

The splendid compilation of MEL-odies and lyrics, unsurprisingly, had the kind of happy and sparkling shine and polish he sang about so cheerily in his opening number, “A Shine on Your Shoes.”  Tormé recorded for a live album with frequent piano partner in the latter years, George Shearing, reprising the number included back in the early ‘60s on a studio set, a vinyl album combining the work of its writers, the team of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, with songs written (or co-written) by Tormé himself.  (My only disappointment with the material chosen for the Feinstein-led foray into the tour of Tormé was the short shrift given to those originals, but maybe one or two of the absentees had planned one or two.  The finale, however, did provide his most famous collaboration, his setting of some words his lyricist friend, Bob Wells, wrote to cool himself off on a blisteringly hot California day when they scheduled a writing session.  He wrote about “folks drssed up like Eskimos” and nippy weather, starting with the mention of something warm to take off the chill: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….”  

Mr. Feinstein, a natural educator at heart, filled in the less-clued-in with basic biographical highpoints and anecdotes — he hated his restrictive nickname that described his uniquely smoky/smooth sound as “The Velvet Fog” and points about his early career and multi-tasking talents —- his interest and enthusiasm not distancing those of us well versed (call us “Tor-mavens”).  A shoutout was justly given to music historian/journalist Will Friedwald  for providing script info.

I’d been a fan of the MELifulus-voiced Mel for years and was lucky enough to have seen him perform in concert.  I’d collected dozens of his albums, hunting down the then-out-of-print ones. I watched movies he was in, like the old college musical Good News, and caught his TV appearances, including a running bit as the fave singer of the lead character in the sit com Night Court and also remember the jingle he sang in a commercial for “a fragrance that’s here today and they calI it ‘Charlie.’” (Bobby Short crooned it at another point in the marketing.)  For Mountain Dew drink, another commercial found him jumping out of an airplane, singing a few of Cole Porter’s lines–”I get no kick in a plane…”, changing the title line to, yes, “I Get a Kick Out of Dew.”  In the Feinstein rendition, happily, he went back to the original “you” and you got the whole classic song done with the kind of knowhow that only such a person so drenched in the Great American Songbook can bring to it.  I’d read the Tormé warts-and-all autobiography and his not-very-kind book about his experiences on staff of Judy Garland’s TV series as well as his tome called My Singing Teachers in which he saluted other singers he loved and learned from.  I even read a novel he wrote called Wynner about a young singer.  It was difficult to listen to him for a while without feeling so MEL-ancholy that he had died at the age of what now seems youngish compared to so many others now older and still performing with vitality.  He was just 73. The news put a damper on a day I’d been looking forward to, as I heard it on the radio on the day of the Tony Awards, shortly before those festivities began.  I wonder if, had he lived more years, he might have covered some Broadway songs written in this century.  Back in the day, he’d certainly recorded numbers from the show that won Best Revival in 1999— the 1946 Annie Get Your Gun.  

Anyway, back to memorable show that kept the memory alive so well.  An almost obligatory inclusion, sung by Mr. F. with depth and a variety of colors, was “Blue Moon.”  Tormé often referenced this song, such as when he’d scat and quote a bit of it, or interpolate a phrase or two in a mega-medley, long before the word “mash-up” became common for such musical casseroles.  It was the Mel-assigned number in the allegedly biographical film about it writers, with a screenplay and characterizations that took so many liberties with history that we’d now use the term “alternative facts” — the Rodgers & Hart story, MGM’s star-stuffed Words and Music.

Catherine Russell came armed with the weather report, via “Too Darn Hot” (Cole Porter again) and “Stormy Weather” (Harold Arlen/ Ted Koehler) which was combined with a fine Feinstein rendition of another classic by the same team, offering the calm after the storm, or maybe the eye of the storm (you know how love can be stormy): “When the Sun Comes Out.”  In any case, the meteorology worked its wonders. Miss Russell is a super mix of fiery hot sizzle and seething and cool, calm, and collected because she is such a serene pro.

We continued to be in good hands, especially considering we had on hand the band led by pianist extraordinaire Tedd Firth (except when our host took over the keys for all or part of a song, playing musical chairs for the shares).  First-rate Firth is always a marvel, with “The Marvelous Marilyn Maye,” whom Feinstein brought out at another concert at the venue this past season, or, frankly, anyone.  His arrangements and conducting and playing — and his craft and jazz-imbued energy — are dazzling and the nicely big-sized orchestra of primo instrumentalists was energizing and delicious. The brass was especially exciting.  And when Firth was given the spotlight– in a word, WOW!

Billy Stritch photo by Russ Weatherford

The no-contest smartest inclusion by our master of ceremonies was the participation of Billy Stritch, whether he was providing his own accompaniment or “just” singing. It’s no stretch to say Stritch is at the head of the pack in his admiration and emulation–not imitation, though he can do that a bit with tongue in cheek—  leading to channeling our subject of salute.  (Mel’s sons James and Steve have also tributed their dad in song, but that’s comparing apples that don’t fall from the tree with oranges, and the orange named Stritch really evokes the Tormé way.)  

His especially rewarding album doing exactly that is a gem, as was the live show he did.  The all-around musicianly musician is made to order for this night, and I vividly remember him bringing the solo Mel Tormé Songbook show to the Metropolitan Room (the club he was the very first act at, over a decade ago).  With tender loving care, we heard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” come from this master of Mel, and “Mountain Greenery,” a number very much in his book, having done it alone and as duets, with the imprint of Tormé and the duo fizz of Jackie & Roy.  

The pièce de résistance came with the mega-medley originally planned for Feinstein and one of the indisposed stars.  It was the icing on the cake, but the assignment was no piece of cake. It was the “Two Tune Medley” designed by Mel for himself and Cleo Laine, a combination of 20 —count ‘em, 20—-standard songs, weaving in and out of each other, occasionally reprised, sometimes in counterpoint to each other.  A remarkable thing that leaves one in breathless awe just listening to the recorded version I am still knocked out by, but to hear it done LIVE by two men who know their music, but didn’t have the luxury of much rehearsal, was staggeringly, stimulating, and starry.  Bravo, bravo, bravo! Mel Tormé, your work and life were given a loving embrace.       

Now don’t forget the upcoming tribute to Fitzgerald with Feinstein and Firth and three more strong singers as guests.  This whole year has found many a singer and band jumping on the Ella bandwagon.  Ah, The Band Wagon— Say, wasn’t that the MGM film in which Fred Astaire sang “A Shine on Your Shoes” which Mr. Feinstein used as a first song in the Mel tribute?  So, we are back where we started, with someone who can do 1000 times more than carry a tune in a-tisket a-tasket a green and yellow basket.

See www.jalc.org and www.michaelfeinstein.com