My New Year started with a strong urge for Mel Torme, which could only be satisfied in part by the gift of his “sings Fred Astaire” CD from my mother for Christmas, and an ensuing YouTube binge. How convenient then, that Fran Hardcastle’s cocktail/preview bought to my attention that Frank Griffith and his nonet had chosen this very artist as the subject of their new show, collaborating with the very gifted and suave singer/improviser Iain Mackenzie! Lucky, lucky me. I squeezed into the back of a packed out Pizza Express Dean Street making sure I had just enough room to swoon to the crooning.
The band settled onto the stage and opened with Irving Berlin’s The Best Thing for You Is Me arranged by Robbie Robson who also played trumpet and flugel horn. An archetypal 1950s complex brass intro relaxed into medium swing; solos first by the trumpet and then Frank’s tenor sax cut through the thick of the tightly layered horns while the sound desk tinkered with the levels.
Their subsequent repertoire was predominantly compiled from tracks on the 1960 album Mel Torme Swings Shubert Alley, arranged by Marty Paich. A prolific pianist and arranger to pretty much all the greats, from Sarah Vaughan to Michael Jackson, Paich also found time to chart and play the score for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.
Frank introduced Iain and gratefully passed over the microphone for him to do the talking, he set the audience at ease with a couple of one-liners. Too Close for Comfort was the first vocal vehicle to be given a spin; Alex Garnett exercised his alto into athletic phrases and Mark Hodgson on double bass laid down solid lines with all the gravity of a Mancini favourite. This was indeed cool stuff. Just in Time got the audience very excited and a couple of girls started to sing along, the ending also required Iain to conduct. I enjoyed Sitting and a Rocking, a lesser known Duke Ellington number again pitched at an easy swing; it inspired Frank to play a beautifully syncopated break into his solo featuring the Latin turnaround of Brazil – at this point I also got very excited! The men had their turn too as I counted five YEAH’s after the last beat of a punchy rendition of Old Devil Moon.
The nonet ensemble had transcribed this fine body of work between them – the smooth yet crunchy harmonies were apparently modelled on Miles Davis’ Nonet sound which was recorded in 1949/50 and released famously in 1957 as Birth of the Cool. Contributions by trombonist Adrian Fry included East of the Sun which they performed with a Latin hue, the ensemble also featured Jimmy Hastings on baritone saxophone and trumpeter Henry Lowther as well as Tim Lapthorn on piano and drummer Paul Clarvis who ably read all of the numbers.
It would be difficult to do a Mel Torme evening without incorporating perhaps his most famous composition and although the trimmings have only just come down, Iain found it fulfilling to be probably the first person in 2011 to perform The Christmas Song.
In his final number of the evening, Iain did show us a glimpse of his scat singing talents over the closing bars of On the Street Where You Live (the highly structured charts were deliberate recreations of a recording session that left little room for vocal improvisation) however, his bang on intonation, pitch and groove blended satisfyingly yet reservedly within the horns.
Although Mel was a multi instrumentalist (drums, ukulele, and piano) and perhaps the only scat singer to rival Ella Fitzgerald, sadly his recordings rarely capture the versatility he displayed in live performance. For this reason I will continue to revisit the online treasure trove of performance footage but I might well also add this stunning album to my collection – thank you Frank and Co. for introducing it to me.