Torme is always with a song in his heart and now he's singing Bing Crosby's

October 27, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Even with his love of medleys, Mel Torme will be able to sample only a fraction of his repertoire of about 5,000 songs when he settles into the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for four performances starting today.

One song he'll be performing, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," is the sort of mellow tune that long ago gave him his nickname of "Velvet Fog." But the crooner, 69, has a vocal range that easily takes him through just about everything the jazz and pop songbooks have to offer. Similarly, he glides with ease from crisply enunciated lyrics to Ella-fast scat singing.

It's the kind of versatility that has given this former vaudeville child star an adult career of impressive fullness. He has composed almost 300 songs, including co-writing the 1946 chestnut "The Christmas Song." He's also a drummer, pianist and arranger. As a recording artist, he's collaborated with the likes of Artie Shaw and George Shearing. He took to doing radio and TV shows with ease, and he has written books on Judy Garland and Buddy Rich.

His latest project is the newly released CD "A Tribute to Bing Crosby," whose songs are mostly culled from the movies Crosby did for Paramount. Such romantic ballads as "Moonlight Becomes You," from "The Road to Morocco," serve as a reminder of the era when the moon evoked romance and wasn't simply considered an astronomical chunk of rock.

Mr. Torme finds many popular singers of the 1930s rather stiff, but he admires Crosby for having a smooth and casual way with words. During a conversation from his Beverly Hills, Calif., home, Mr. Torme says the idea for the album came to him while visiting his good friend, Hugh Hefner, who was playing old Bing Crosby records.

"I go to Hugh Hefner's a lot. He's just seven minutes from my home. As we listened to Bing Crosby, I instinctively thought that he is the greatest singer in the world. Without Bing there'd be no Sinatra. That night, it hit me that I'd like to do a Bing Crosby album.

"Picking a project like that," he continues, "I then watched every Paramount movie Crosby ever made. I literally watched 20 movies made between 1934 and into 1941, gleaning every tune as it came on and thinking about them all."

Now that the album is out, it rankles Mr. Torme that it is being marketed as a jazz release, like so much popular music of that era.

"Although it's a ballad album, it has showed up in the jazz charts. I suppose the jazz 'label' is an albatross around my neck. I am basically a jazz singer, but it's a misnomer to call this a jazz album."

It can be equally tricky to put a label on Mr. Torme, because he has so often bridged the jazz and pop domains. This makes tracking him a challenge -- for those who perform with him, as well as for listeners. So it's to his advantage that his regular trio accompanies him wherever his scat-happy lyrics take him.

"I bring my own trio all over the world," he says. "I know that I can do just about anything with them. They've got pretty good radar going. They're such an integral part of what I do that I don't consider them a trio, I consider us a quartet."

Mr. Torme and his trio -- OK, the Torme Quartet -- will be joined at the Meyerhoff by the 17-piece Baltimore Jazz Orchestra. Directed by Ed Goldstein and with some of its members coming from Mr. Goldstein's 20-year-old Peabody Ragtime Ensemble, the Baltimore Jazz Orchestra was formed earlier this year. It will open the program with selections from Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Woody Herman, then will back Mr. Torme in the second half.

Many numbers they play will be in arrangements Mr. Torme has done himself.

"I write virtually every single arrangement I do, whether with the trio, a big band or a symphony orchestra," Mr. Torme explains. "Being the arranger, I have greater control than other singers might. Other singers have great arrangers, but I just feel doing my own arrangements makes me closer to the songs.

"In 1963, I started doing arrangements in a hit-or-miss way. I've never studied one note of music. Everything I do is instinctive. I've now written, since '63, maybe 400 arrangements, of which a few work. As time has gone on and I've done more of them, it's far less of a hit-or-miss thing. So in the last 10 years I've known I can write an arrangement."

IN CONCERT

When: Tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 8:15 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $23-$39 (Boxes $53)

Call: (410) 783-8000

TORME'S TRIBUTE

To hear excerpts from Mel Torme's "A Tribute to Bing Crosby," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6231 after you hear the greeting.

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