I don't know what Frank Sinatra, at 75, is going to sound like later this month at the Salt Palace. But to judge from his performance Friday with the Utah Symphony, at 65 Mel Torme sounds better than ever.
Even in his opening number, a "Big Country"-flavored version of "Strike Up the Band," those mellow tones were unmistakable. Ditto the followup, a wistfully evocative "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," smooth even on the diminuendos, of which there were more than a few.But as the singer's autobiography might put it, it wasn't all velvet. There was also that distinctive attention to the words and the rhythm of a song, made all the more uncanny by his apparent freedom with both.
Which is to say he fit very easily into the orchestral context, whether striking up the band himself in a swinging "Guys and Dolls" medley or calling in associate conductor Kirk Mupratt to help out on "This Is a Lovely Way To Spend an Evening" (here interwoven with Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony).
In between he regaled the crowd with an engaging line of patter, including "Good evening, my name is Steve Lawrence - my wife, Eydie Torme, will be out in a minute," and reminiscences of a one-nighter in Naples, Fla., in which "I realized the average age of the entire audience is deceased."
That wasn't true Friday, although obviously his lineup of songs from the '30s and '40s was not aimed primarily at the younger set. Even the most recent exception, a Marvin Hamlisch-Alan & Marilyn Bergman tribute to Ronald Reagan, was turned out for that luminary's 80th birthday.
But age wasn't what you thought about as Torme launched into a jazzed-up rendition of the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel" (complete with a less-than-flattering story about Richard Rodgers) or "Ella Be Good," his Gershwin-derived tribute to the woman he called "the greatest scat singer on this planet."
No argument there, but guess who my nomination is for No. 2. Especially in such things as the "Why Don't You Do Right" portion of an extended Benny Goodman medley (with a nod to Peggy Lee) or his encore, "Just One of Those Things," filled to the brim with free interpolations.
Before that he trotted out one of his own compositions, the classic "Christmas Song," written with Bob Wells in 1945. ("At least," he said, "it gives me the rare distinction of being the first person in 1991 to wish you all a merry Christmas.")
By the same token the Goodman medley reminded us that Torme's talents don't end at the podium or the microphone. For after spotlighting clarinetist Christie Lundquist in "Let's Dance" and segueing to the likes of "Chicago," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "Don't Be That Way" and "And the Angels Sing," he took over from drummer Donny Osborne, literally without missing a beat, for a Krupa-style "Sing, Sing, Sing."
It also seemed a more appropriate sequence than the one with which Muspratt and the orchestra opened the evening, an oddball mix of Viennese and Gypsy favorites ranging from Johann Strauss Jr. (the "Banditen-Galopp") to Dvorak ("Songs My Mother Taught Me").
To the conductor's credit, tempos were lively and the sentiment muted, at least until the final two Carmen Dragon arrangements, "Czardas" and "Dark Eyes," whose ersatz Zigeuner-isms recalled for at least one listener that Torme's career didn't end in Chicago. Ultimately he came to Hollywood.