Ten years before the Beach Boys, there was another Southern California sound. Like the weather at night in Malibu, West Coast jazz was breezy and cool. It was scored, contrapuntal and performed at polite decibel levels. And it could swing without breaking a sweat.
In 1955, when Mel Tormé parted ways with Capitol Records and signed with jazz indie Bethlehem, he left behind a chance to be a hit parade crooner and dove straight into the elegantly arranged heart of West Coast cool. This sixteen-song collection samples the best of Mel's four-year stint at the label, and in retrospect, can be seen as the launching pad for one of the great jazz singing careers.
A main tenet of West Coast jazz was ensemble playing rather than soloing, and from early sides such as "Lullaby Of Birdland" and "Lulu's Back In Town," you can hear how Tormé sings inside, rather than out front of, Marty Paich's arrangements. With the tonal purity of a horn, Tormé's vocal is all about understatement and soft blend. That's not to say he's straying into Perry Como sleepytime territory. There's a focus and swing behind his nonchalant approach. Call it relaxed intensity (actually, music critics used to call his style "the velvet fog," a moniker that Tormé hated).
Marty Paich, a protégé of the influential arranger Shorty Rogers, began his forty-year association with Tormé on these sessions. His arrangements swathe the singer in everything from mannered European harmony ("How Long Has This Been Going On?") to totally extroverted swing ("The Way You Look Tonight"). The brass counterpoint harmonies (a Paich trademark) on "Something's Gotta Give" are especially frisky, and bring out the color and tone in Tormé's voice.
Among the studio recordings are two live cuts from the wonderful (though sadly out of print) Mel Tormé At The Crescendo. Mel's interpretative charges through "Just One Of Those Things" and "I'm Beginning To See The Light" are spirited and giddy and everything jazz singing should be.
The set ends up on "Poor Little Extra Girl," a Tormé-penned ballad from California Suite, an early concept album and one of Mel's finer moments as a composer. The song, a cool jazz lullaby about the woes of a Hollywood hopeful, seems oddly ahead of its time, and a forerunner of Beach Boys' melancholy tunes such as "Surfer Girl" and "Caroline, No."
But then, as this collection shows, Tormé was catching a wave of cool long before any of his crooner cronies. • Bill DeMain