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Mel Torme: Live at the Playboy Jazz Festival

It wasn’t for nothing he earned the nickname Mel Torment. Obstinate, opinionated and egotistic in the extreme, Mel Torme was, much like his buddy Buddy Rich, a relentless scrapper who sniffed at mediocrity and refused to suffer fools gladly. He was also the most accomplished male vocalist of his generation, a musician’s singer who swung cooler than Frank, looser than Nat and a whole lot hipper than Bing. After his death in June 1999, the mantle passed to Mark Murphy. Right till the end, though, Torme remained in regal form, as evidenced on nearly two dozen Concord albums, including the recently unearthed Live at the Playboy Jazz Festival (Playboy Jazz/Concord) from 1993.

Backed by Ray Anthony and his brassy big band, Torme pays tribute to four of the Swing Era icons he admired most: Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Opening with Goodman’s “Opus 1,” Torme’s trademark fogginess is thicker than usual, and there’s a creeping rustiness around the bottom of that burnished instrument of his. Still, his instincts are sharp as ever, his patter briskly intelligent. About five minutes into the set, he ignites a blistering “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” proving he’d become like those vintage MGs he adored: slow to warm up but impossible to beat when firing on all cylinders. His “deep bow” to Goodman is a 15-minute lesson in Torme magic, complete with razor-sharp scatting and the sort of keenly imaginative interpolations that he tossed of which instinctual ease.

Originally Published