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****, MEL TORME "The Mel Torme Collection, 1944-1985," Rhino Records

July 14, 1996|Don Heckman

Mel Torme prefers to describe this far-ranging four-CD boxed set as "the first 40 years of a work in progress"--an understandable perspective for a performer who is still very much at the top of his form. He may, as a matter of fact, be more widely known than ever now, as the result of his frequent subliminal presence in the old sitcom "Night Court" and his recent high-visibility soft drink commercials.

More to the point, Torme at 70 is one of the finest male jazz singers in the world, a capable musician, songwriter and arranger who clearly possesses the full musical package. And what makes this collection so fascinating is the evidence it provides that he was very good from the very beginning.

The 92 tracks (with medleys, more than 100 tunes) start with two 1944 performances by the Mel-Tones, his vocal group of the time. Torme's trademark Velvet Fog sound is immediately and obviously present in his solo passages on "A Stranger in Town." It continues to be one of the most ear-soothing timbres in all of popular singing.

Less noticeable, but also emerging in his singing during the next few years, is an ineffable sense of swing. Frank Sinatra has always been praised, justifiably, as the master of phrasing. But Torme has his own masterful qualities as well, notably an intelligent comprehension of lyrics and a capacity to lay out his phrases with the rhythmic effect of a jazz instrumentalist.

There are far too many high spots in this superb, career-defining anthology of material to mention them all. But there are several that should not be overlooked: a brisk, previously unreleased version of "Three Little Words" from 1947; a 1949 rendering of "Again" with a roiling Latin rhythm arrangement by Stan Kenton orchestrator Pete Rugolo; a marvelous, hard-driving "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," with a Benny Carter chart; Torme's classic "Mountain Greenery," recorded live in 1954 in Hollywood; an equally classic lineup of tunes from the mid-'50s with the Marty Paich Dek-Tette; a hilarious, Frenchified sendup of "Autumn Leaves"; another unreleased item--a bright interpretation of Gerry Mulligan's "Walking Shoes" with words by Torme; some solid Torme blues shouting on "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town"; and, appropriately, his own recording of "The Christmas Song."

Curiously, however, the greatest testament to Torme's skills may be the fourth CD, which includes tracks from 1962 to 1985, not a period when Torme was consistently recording the choicest songs under the best of circumstances. Even so, his talent is ever present in his constantly astounding ability to bring musical substance to such off-the-wall selections as the rock shuffle rhythms of "Comin' Home Baby," Paich's weird yeah-yeah-yeah arrangement of "Cast Your Fate to the Winds," an echo-packed, clattery version of "Yesterday When I Was Young," a duet with Barry Manilow and a string of undistinguished studio sessions (including--happily not represented here--covers of such pop tunes as "Games People Play").

Rhino has produced a first-rate musical package with, except for some scratchy numbers presumably taken from 78-rpm masters, excellent sound. Unfortunately, the documentation doesn't come up to the level of the music. Don't, for example, try to get any quick information from the box's program booklet, which manages to disorganize a huge amount of otherwise useful Torme data into a confusing, out-of-sequence mess. Too bad, since it almost eliminates the possibility of finding the details on a given song without scanning page after page of graphically distracting text.

Torme, who knows how to take care of the details, deserves better. But he would rather, in any case, look to the future, not to the past. "If you rest, you rust," he says. "I'll continue singing and swinging, and I'm going to keep doing it until I get it right."


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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