Local hotspot Le Chat Noir kicks off its July “Piano Men” series with the penultimate cool cabaret songster Billy Stritch. I’m happy to report that Mr. Stritch gives one hell of a show. He’s stylish, sophisticated, and an incredible talent, and he’s back in New Orleans for one weekend only. You won’t want to miss his newest show, “The Mel Tormé Songbook,” which debuted earlier this year at New York’s Birdland. With brief asides recounting the astonishing career of one of the twentieth century’s legendary jazz interpreters, Stritch covers the gamut of hit songs and lesser known gems from Tormé’s oeuvre.
Accompanied on string bass by local Al Bernard (whom Mr. Stritch announced at the opening night performance that the two had just met some six hours earlier), Billy Stritch opened the set with the innuendo-ridden Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin/Yip Harburg classic “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block.” The audience was on pins and needles, for we all were worrying whether or not Mr. Bernard could keep up with Mr. Stritch’s innovative chord progressions and arrangements. Fear not, Al Bernard was a master, playing seamlessly with Stritch’s piano and vocals and never missing a beat (or note.) A true “pick-up” musician, Stritch gave Bernard his due, noting that he played with Tormé on several occasions in the Blue Room at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans.
Stritch covers the spectrum of Tormé’s professional career, though not in chronological order, nor with the feeling that we’re getting a history lesson. His asides are witty, impromptu, and part of his innate charisma. He recounts Mel’s first professional gig in 1929, at the tender age of 4, when Tormé won an amateur hour contest at the Black Hawk Restaurant in Chicago, performing the song “You’re Driving Me Crazy” – a pretty daunting choice for a toddler! Stritch doesn’t sing the song like a toddler, thankfully, but he does hit home the fact that his idol was a natural talent, sort of like Mr. Stritch himself.
Billy Stritch’s skilled piano playing fits well with his silky, rich voice: both instruments play as one. Bearing a small resemblance (physically and vocally) to Mel Tormé, it’s no wonder why this material comes alive so easily and so well. Tormé was nicknamed “The Velvet Fog” – a moniker he somewhat despised…he would jokingly refer to himself as “The Velvet Frog” – Billy Stritch’s vocal tones, riffs, and intonations pay a subtle homage to Mel Tormé without ever sounding like a copycat. Tormé was not only a gifted singer, but a terrific drummer, pianist, and musical arranger. Stritch recreates many of Tormé’s own arrangements, downsized for the intimate Le Chat stage. He plays a charming medley of a couple of songs from one of Tormé’s breakthrough roles in Hollywood – “Lucky in Love” and “The Best Things in Life are Free” from Good News. Show tune lovers can take comfort in the lesser known jewel “Nobody Else But Me,” which was added to an early Show Boat revival. You can hear that number in the excellent “In Your Dreams” CD that Stritch (and Tony winner Christine Ebersole) released on Ghostlight Records a few years back. Even rarer is “Too Close for Comfort” from the little known Sammy Davis Jr. musical Mr. Wonderful.
Show tunes seem a natural choice for Stritch, who grew up listening to cast recordings and attending musicals at the Alley Theater in Houston, his home town. He’s been associated with the previously mentioned Christine Ebersole, as well as the music director and arranger for Liza Minnelli, among others. He also appeared on Broadway in the recent revival of 42nd Street and can be heard on the revival’s cast recording.
One particularly thrilling moment in the evening was the haunting “A Cottage for Sale” by Willard Robison. Performed nearly verbatim from Tormé’s album “Mel Tormé & Friends: Live at Marty’s” – it proved to be one of the evening’s most poignant moments. Stritch acknowledges this album (a double LP on Finnesse Records and re-released on CD briefly a decade ago, now in short supply) as one of his biggest influences growing up.
Not surprisingly was the inclusion of two songs long associated with Mel Tormé: (both incidentally by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart) “Mountain Greenery” – with all of the verses and choruses (!) and “Blue Moon.” Mr. Stritch’s execution is flawless: he finds power and passion in everything he plays. Music lovers would do themselves a great disservice by missing out on this stellar entertainer.
Billy Stritch Sings the Mel Tormé Songbook, at Le Chat Noir
part of the July Piano Men Series
Now through Sunday Only!
Call 504/581.5812 for Reservations