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TV Review

'Mel Torme': A Master at Top of His Form

October 26, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On July 23, just 16 days before he suffered a stroke from which he still is recovering, Mel Torme gave one of the finer performances of his career. "An Evening With Mel Torme," on A&E tonight, chronicles his Disney Institute appearance in a program that also includes segments from Torme's talks with young musicians enrolled in the performing arts division of the Orlando-based institute.

Torme is in the absolute top of his musical form in the concert portions of the show. Working with an excellent trio--Mike Renzi on piano, John Leitham on bass, Donny Osbourne on drums--he does everything right, from scat-singing to ballads to storytelling. At 71, Torme's voice still has the strength, the flexibility and timbre of a singer half his age. And, like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, he somehow manages to be an entertaining, communicative performer without sacrificing an ounce of his creative imagination.

Relaxed and easygoing, he tosses in bits of musical background to introduce a Benny Goodman medley, sings a high-flying tribute to Fitzgerald on "Lady Be Good" (complete with scat choruses that brilliantly expand upon Fitzgerald's classic version) and rips through a rapid-fire, classically inspired reading of "Pick Yourself Up." Best of all, there is a rendering of "Stardust" that is so articulate, so beautifully conceived, that it once again restores the poetry to Mitchell Parish's atmospheric lyrics. The attraction of his musical skills aside, Torme invests everything he sings with an extraordinary aliveness. As with all true stars, every note, every word, every move, is completely gripping.

Further enhancing this impressive production are the segments in which Torme--via no-nonsense, to-the-point explanations--describes the elements that are fundamental to good singing. His explanation of scat-singing should be carefully considered by anyone attempting this elusive art, as should his equally significant discussion of ballad singing as storytelling.

Jazz on television doesn't always fare well, often handicapped by unimaginative production and languid performers. "An Evening With Mel Torme" (an audio version of which, with several additional songs, is available on a Concord Records CD), is the exception, a brilliant showcase for a vital artist who hopefully still has many songs to sing.

* "An Evening With Mel Torme" airs on the A&E Network tonight at 11.

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