Mel tormé & marty paich's dek-tette
By Thomas Cunniffe
From the early fifties until his death in 1995, Marty Paich was one of the top arrangers for jazz and pop singers. While Paich's talents also encompassed instrumental jazz and orchestral film scores, he was especially adept at creating settings that showcased the best qualities of a featured vocalist. Like many arrangers, Paich could work independently, developing charts from what he knew of the singer's range and abilities. But Paich enjoyed collaborating with his featured artists, incorporating ideas that the vocalist had been willing to try, but had not successfully implemented. There is no better example of such collaboration than Paich's teaming with Mel Tormé in their series of albums featuring the Dek-tette.
The very idea of the Dek-tette was Tormé's. Tormé had been introduced to Paich's work through his cool jazz-influenced small group charts, and in 1955, when Tormé changed labels from Decca to Bethlehem, he specifically asked to work with Paich. Both Tormé and Paich were fans of the Gerry Mulligan Tentette and Tormé wanted to use a similar style as a backup for a vocal album. For the horns, Paich retained the Mulligan group's coupling of brass quintet (2 trumpets, trombone, French horn and tuba) and saxophone trio, but opted for alto, tenor and baritone sax rather than Mulligan's alto and 2 baritones. More importantly, at Tormé's urging, Paich omitted the piano from the rhythm section, allowing the singer to "stroll" with only bass and drums in accompaniment. Of course, it was Tormé's remarkable sense of pitch that allowed him that luxury.
Yet Tormé was not satisfied with just a new backdrop. For their first album, Mel Tormé & The Marty Paich Dek-tette, the vocalist and arranger specifically looked for songs that had not been widely heard, and whether by coincidence or design, not yet recorded by Frank Sinatra. (Of course, one of the tunes on the album, "The Lady Is A Tramp", became a Sinatra vehicle, but Sinatra didn't record it until October 1956, 10 months after this Tormé/Paich version.) Tormé was also interested in showcasing his scat singing, his compositional gifts, his ability to blend with horns, and his uncanny talent for performing unassisted modulations.
From the first notes on the first track, the listener can tell that this is no ordinary vocal album. "Lulu's Back In Town" opens with Al Pollan's sprightly tuba performing a syncopated pedal point over the swinging rhythm provided by Red Mitchell and Mel Lewis. Then Tormé enters, not with Harry Warren's original melody and Al Dubin's lyric, but with Tormé's own verse. The horns, which entered with Tormé, back him up with soft sustained chords which peak with Tormé on the line, "but oo-oo, Lulu" giving us our first taste of the Dek-tette's marvelous ensemble sound.
Next, Tormé begins to sing the original tune, not with the usual herky-jerky dotted-eight/sixteenth note patterns, but with smoothed-out quarter/eighth triplets, transforming ‘Lulu’ from an uptight square to a swingin' chick! The horns return on the fifth bar of the tune, on the line, "'cause tonight I gotta look my best." The italicized words are accented by the horns with a long quarter/staccato eighth note pattern. On those words, Tormé matches the tonal inflections produced by lead trumpeter Pete Candoli, which basically turns Tormé into the eleventh member of the band, and, with Candoli, the co-leader of the ensemble!
After solos by alto saxophonist Bud Shank and valve trombonist Bob Enevoldsen, Tormé re-enters with a reprise of the verse, and then the horns mimic his last phrase up a half-step to modulate into the last chorus. The first sixteen bars of this chorus are based on original melodic material and are in the style known in big band circles as a "shout chorus." Here, Tormé's vocal line is clearly the lead voice in the band, with the horns punching identical rhythmic figures behind him.
Then to begin the final eight bars, Paich and Tormé find the perfect medium between the shout chorus material and the original tune: a shout figure closely based on the melody, which gains momentum by eliminating one note and adding a strong syncopation to the note that follows. In the seventh bar, Tormé melds into the coda, which repeats a variation of the final line in two successive keys, followed by a new shout figure which is cut short as Tormé begins to hold the last note, but which is then reprised as Tormé holds that note.
And "Lulu" was just the beginning! The remainder of the first Dek-tette album covered a wide variety of jazz styles: the Latin rhythms of "The Carioca," the big-band style of "Fascinating Rhythm," the dramatic ballad lines of "When The Sun Comes Out," and the laid-back cool jazz of "Lullaby Of Birdland" (the latter featuring a scat tour de force by Tormé). Also included was the very funny Rodgers and Hart classic, "I Like To Recognize The Tune" and the starkly dramatic Ellington re-creation of "The Blues" from Black, Brown & Beige.
The obvious reason for such a broad spectrum was that Tormé and Paich wanted to show all the various styles that the Dek-tette could perform. What is less obvious today is that the Dek-tette was not intended to survive past the original LP. After the album was completed, Tormé went back to his nightclub engagements and Paich toured England with Dorothy Dandridge. The album was released while Paich was away, and when he retrieved his phone messages, he discovered an overwhelming response to the album, including several requests from other singers to use the Dek-tette on their next albums. In a Down Beat interview from 1956, Paich said he would have to "re-form the Dek-tette" for future recordings.
The Dek-tette was re-formed, of course, and now that its future seemed guaranteed for at least a few albums, there was no need to display every aspect of the Dek-tette's sound on every album. Now Paich could focus on one style of writing for each LP, thus subtly unifying the sound of each successive album. Also, several of the subsequent Dek-tette LPs were "concept albums," where all of the music was related by a common theme. In 1956, this was a fairly new idea, but throughout the recording industry, it was quickly embraced as a potent creative outlet and a brilliant marketing idea. Thus, the musicians were quite careful not to include any songs that fell out of the album's concept, and the marketing department was sure to advertise the album's concept in the LP title.
These unification tactics were certainly apparent on the Dek-tette's next album, also for Bethlehem, Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire. The songs, which had all been introduced in Fred Astaire's films, were not only top-notch, but also more familiar. Tormé is in magnificent voice, contributing a cappella intros to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "A Fine Romance," blending into the horn section on "A Foggy Day" and "Let's Face The Music & Dance," and swinging like mad on the up-tempo "The Way You Look Tonight." Paich's arrangements, featuring long stretches of block scoring, are less interesting from a strictly aural standpoint, but the album opener, "Nice Work If You Can Get It" features amazing formal play by Paich, and a remarkable performance by Tormé.
The arrangement starts conventionally enough: Tormé sings the first chorus accompanied by the horns, then there is a reprise of the introduction, which is followed by a half-chorus of exchanges with the ensemble taking the first six bars of each stanza and Tormé capping off the phrase with the title line. Then things get interesting: instead of going to the bridge, Tormé segues to the verse, then moves to the beginning of the original tune. At the second eight, Tormé pulls off a perfect unassisted half-step modulation, and four bars later we are suddenly in the coda. Tormé sings the title line, is interrupted by the horns, repeats the line in a different key, continues with "And if you get it," is again interrupted, then finishes the line, "Won't you tell me how?" as the arrangement concludes with another echo of the introduction.
Both Paich and Tormé were justifiably proud of this album. For Tormé, it was a lovingly conceived tribute to his favorite singer (During the preparation for the album, Tormé phoned Astaire to ask about tunes, tempos, etc., and was astounded that Astaire not only degraded his own singing, but seemed surprised that anyone would consider doing an LP in tribute!) Paich, in the meantime, saw a considerable future with the Dek-tette, and so, took more care in polishing the ensemble playing of the group. The Dek-tette's ranks were filled with some of California's finest jazz musicians (many of whom performed on Dek-tette recordings for another decade) but beginning on the Astaire sessions, Paich worked hard to ensure that the group phrased together, and closely followed the dynamics he had included in the score. The results are clearly reflected in the recording, especially in the beautifully executed group phrasing on "Something's Gotta Give."
The Dek-tette's third album, recorded for Bethlehem in March 1957, was a remake of Mel Tormé's California Suite, featuring Tormé with orchestra and chorus. Paich remembered that the album was recorded in three long sessions, and that he wanted a fourth session scheduled due to the difficulty of the music. This proved impossible because of budget constraints, and Paich was never completely satisfied with the final product.
Originally written in 1949, California Suite was Tormé's answer to Gordon Jenkins' New York City tribute, Manhattan Tower. It is essentially a song suite woven together by vocal verses and instrumental interludes. The songs include tributes to many of California's cities, including San Diego, San Francisco, La Jolla and Hollywood, and while there is a great deal of cheerleading for the Golden State, there are also complimentary sections on Coney Island and Atlantic City. There are two featured voices: Tormé, a ‘California rooter’ and ‘The Easterner’, a New Yorker with lots of attitude and a very pronounced accent (portrayed on the original Capitol recording by Peggy Lee). In contrast to the real-life verbal battles between New Yorkers and Californians, Tormé's piece never really provokes any heated discussions between the two protagonists. In fact, Tormé's character recognizes the splendor of the East Coast, then simply points out that California has its own splendor.
In addition to Tormé and Lee, the original recording featured Mel's vocal group, The Mel-Tones, with a large orchestra and chorus. Although the performances are exemplary, the arrangements (credited to eight writers, including Tormé) have not aged well. The orchestrations are straight out of the Hollywood mill -- big and flashy, with lots of harp glissandi and overblown endings. As for the Mel-Tones' sections, Tormé's voicings sound like they were lifted straight out of arrangements for Tommy Dorsey's Pied Pipers or Glenn Miller's Modernaires. If this style was not passé by 1949, it certainly became so within a few years of the recording. It was probably the arrangements that led Tormé to remake California Suite in 1957 with Paich and the Dek-tette.
In the 1957 version, the Mel-Tones are gone, and the orchestra is the Dek-tette, augmented by a small string section. The chorus is smaller, and Tormé sings more of the work solo than on the Capitol recording. Tormé and Paich were the only musicians listed on the album jacket, and the full personnel has only been recently identified through a combination of recording contracts and memories of those present. However, we may never know the identity of the young lady who portrays ‘the Easterner’. According to the album's choral director and contractor, Randy Van Horn, ‘the Easterner’ was played by a girlfriend of the producer, and that her acting and singing abilities were not her most obvious assets. In fact, she was unable to properly execute her final line, "California's everything you told me / Hey, you sold me!" and drummer Al Stoller's screeching of the line in falsetto was eventually dubbed on to the master tape!
Paich's arrangement follows the Capitol version closely, eschews the Hollywood flash, and implements the Dek-tette in the jazz settings. The Dek-tette's ensemble work is especially noteworthy: the punch figures are tightly executed, yet the laid-back West Coast swing is never sacrificed. The string writing is refreshingly understated, especially in the Atlantic City waltz and in the backgrounds to "Poor Little Extra Girl." The opening of the second side features a section with three tempi occurring simultaneously, and a little later in the same movement, there is a wonderfully sultry alto sax solo by Ronnie Lang, which perfectly evokes the scores of film noir. Tormé, obviously relishing the chance to perform his own magnum opus, sings splendidly throughout, acting as lead voice for the chorus in several sections, and contributing exemplary solo work elsewhere. His reading of "Poor Little Extra Girl" is one of his finest ballads up to that time, and his high-spirited vocals in the up-tempo sections help overcome the weaknesses of the work. After all, who else but Tormé could put over a line like "La Jolla won't annoy ya"?
After California Suite, Paich recorded several Dek-tette albums with other singers, including Jeri Southern, The Hi-Lo's and Ella Fitzgerald. Tormé recorded one LP for the Tops label, then moved on to Verve Records. Both the Tops and the first Verve LP were arranged and conducted by Paich, but the Dek-tette was not used on either album (The Tops lists the Dek-tette, but neither the sound nor the instrumentation matches the classic Dek-tette.) It would be nearly three years before Tormé would record again with the Paich Dek-tette, but when they were reunited, they created a classic for the ages: Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley.
On Shubert Alley, Tormé and Paich explore songs from the "book" musicals. These Broadway shows, starting with 1943's Oklahoma! integrated story, music and dance to a higher degree than ever before. Fittingly, Shubert Alley is also highly integrated: song quotes, formerly used in Paich's Dek-tette scores, now became predominant parts of each arrangement. In addition, many of the tracks end with short, bluesy tags, which also subtly tie the twelve arrangements together. Many of the concepts used in earlier Dek-tette LPs are re-examined or expanded upon. The tuba takes on new predominance in the part-writing (and is beautifully captured in the excellent recording mix). In a Down Beat interview, Tormé told Leonard Feather, "I don't think I can sing better than I did on Shubert Alley and I don't think I could get better backing than I got from Marty Paich." Who could argue with that? In short, everyone involved in this recording was operating at peak level, and the album was an undisputed masterpiece.
Since Shubert Alley works so well as a unified album, it is almost unfair to single out individual tracks for praise. Suffice to say that every track on this album deserves (and withstands) close scrutiny; however, here are a few of the album's many highlights. The opening track, "Too Close For Comfort", effectively reprises and expands on several of the ideas presented on the first Dek-tette album. Tormé opens the track (and thus the album) a cappella with original music: "Be wise...Be fair...Be sure...Be there...Behave...Beware" with the Dek-tette echoing each phrase. Tormé begins the tune, accompanied by punch figures in the saxophones, with the brass joining in for the last bar, followed by a 3-bar extension. In the next eight, all the horns accompany Tormé, and in the bridge, Tormé is left with just bass and drums, with the horns contributing ensemble figures between Tormé's phrases. For the next eight, the saxes return with the same figure as before, and in the song's final section -- "One thing leads to another / Too late to run for cover / She's much too close for comfort” -- Tormé again plays "lead horn" in the ensemble (in the italicized words). Tormé doesn't actually finish this chorus; after the quoted lines above, the song’s cadence is on the word ‘now’; Tormé and Paich omit the cadence, so that Tormé and alto saxophonist Art Pepper can insert the first of the album's song quotes, Charlie Parker's "The Steeplechase." The quote doubles as a transition, and Pepper launches his solo, with background figures and a brief interruption by the Dek-tette.
When Tormé returns, it is with a shortened version of the introduction, and with a short ensemble passage, we encounter another shout chorus. As in "Lulu's Back In Town," Tormé matches his phrasing to the horns. However, the concept of this shout chorus is much more complex than in "Lulu". To begin with, the trumpets do not actually play the shout figures with Tormé, but contribute a muted figure between the shout phrases. Also, the shout figures do not begin on the first bar of the phrase. Instead, Tormé sings "Put on your old thinkin' cap, boy / 'cause if you don't look out / she . . . will have you up that old tree" with the horns coming in on the italicized words. The trumpets turn up again for ensemble figures at the end of each eight-bar section, but at these points, they play without mutes.
The 16 measures of shout chorus is only a preamble to the stunning bridge, which builds and builds with Tormé's impassioned "Too close. . . too close . . . much too close" over the Dek-tette's powerfully swinging background. The bridge reaches its peak with two stop-time scat passages by Tormé. Then it's back to the tune, appropriately with just bass and drums in accompaniment. When the horns return, there is more of the shout chorus style, but here, as in "Lulu," it is the original tune that is now receiving the shout chorus treatment. The section in question, "One thing leads to another / Too late to run for cover / She's much too close for comfort now" is repeated twice as a quasi-tag, with different backgrounds used each time and with bass fills by Mondragon inserted between each repetition. Then the introductory material returns, capped with Tormé's "She's too close, too close for comfort now" set to one of jazz's oldest cadential formulas, but saved from triteness by Paich's setting of it for voice and tuba. There is a final chord, and a brief improvised tag by Pepper.
Closing the first side is one of the most difficult arrangements ever conceived for a vocalist, "Just In Time." The tune is quite simple, based on a three-note motive, with the middle note a minor second below its two neighbors. The lyric speaks of the singer being in imminent danger before love (and his new lover) came "Just In Time." Paich's arrangement matches that sentiment exactly by placing the vocalist in treacherous areas where, if not for his superior musicianship, Tormé could wander off-pitch or lose the melody altogether. That Tormé pulls it off is a testament to his standing as one of the finest singers in jazz.
The arrangement opens with only Mondragon's walking bass. Then Tormé and Lewis enter, and the three men comprise the instrumentation for the entire first chorus. This is the longest sequence in the entire Dek-tette discography where a vocalist is accompanied by just bass and drums. When the horns finally come in, it is not with a background to "Just In Time," but an extended quote from "Who's Sorry Now." With eight horns surrounding him playing a completely different tune, with only similar chord changes, Tormé continues "Just In Time" for 16 bars, never faltering in pitch or melodic assuredness. The quote is quite noteworthy in its own right. In an interview, Tormé told me that he came up with all of the song quotes on Shubert Alley. However, it is clear that it was Paich's artistry that made them succeed. The "Who's Sorry Now" quote continues for 12 full bars, and to get out of it, Paich takes its last note, extends it over the bar line, and seamlessly makes it the first note of an original background figure to fill the remaining bars of the phrase. It is a masterful technique, and one easily missed if the listener is focusing on Tormé and not the background.
The ensemble bridge that follows sets the peak of intensity and volume for the arrangement. Then suddenly, it is Tormé with bass and drums again. He sings with them until the line, "lonely life, that lovely day," which is sung nine times, in three groups of three. The first time is with bass and drums, but each successive group adds instruments and volume, so that after the saxes have backed up Tormé, all of the horns are included on the last repeat. This final repeat is extended with Tormé's original "day you changed my life, that lovely day" and punch figures from the ensemble which crescendo throughout. When Tormé holds the word ‘day’, there is a closing ensemble tag which again challenges Tormé, since there are strong dissonances between Tormé's held note and those played by Red Callender on tuba. The arrangement sounds as if it's finished here, but after a slight pause, there is a short sax soli, and an improvised tag by trumpeter Stu Williamson.
Paich and Tormé take quite a few liberties with the formal scheme of Cole Porter's "Too Darn Hot." The song was originally in an odd AAABC form, but is usually adapted to an AABA form by singers. The Shubert Alley version goes in the other direction by adding another A section, and delaying the C until the very end of the performance. After the introduction, which features a scorching bop line for alto and trumpet, Tormé sings the first A section.
There is an extension, and a solo break for trombonist Frank Rosolino, who continues soloing in the next A section, while Tormé lays out. (Suffice to say, the interruption of the vocalist during the first theme statement is very unusual!) After Rosolino finishes, Tormé modulates up a step and sings the next A section. The extension, break and solo pattern is repeated, only this time Art Pepper is featured. After Tormé's bridge, there is an ensemble passage before Tormé returns with yet another A section. Although the extension and break return (with the break by Mel Lewis), there is no solo. Rather, we move directly to the bridge, where Tormé pulls off an amazing set of modulations. On the words, "According to the Kinsey Report/Every average man you know," Tormé modulates up a half-step on the words "Kinsey" and "average," then back down by half-steps on the words "man" and "know." It is the musical equivalent of a tap dancer going up one side of a stage staircase and then down the other side. The bridge now leads to the only appearance of the C section, which is extended into the brief coda.
Even the detailed analysis above fails to capture all of the wonderful moments on "Shubert Alley," and listing more just takes away the fun of discovery for the listener. Simply put, if you don't have this album, YOU NEED IT!!!
It would be 28 years before Tormé and Paich would team up again. Two albums were recorded for Concord Jazz, the studio session, Reunion and a follow-up concert recorded in Japan. By this time, Tormé had established himself as a preeminent jazz vocalist of his era and Paich had expanded his talents into the realms of pop music and film scores. The Dek-tette, which had last recorded for an Ella Fitzgerald LP in 1966, now featured an almost entirely different personnel. Further, Paich added both piano and synthesizers to the instrumentation. The repertoire was expanded as well: alongside remakes of "The Blues", "Too Close For Comfort" and "The Carioca" were tunes by Donald Fagen, Chick Corea and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Also included were song medleys where a portion of one song became the verse for another. This had become one of Tormé's favorite devices; of course, it is clearly a development of the quotes used on Shubert Alley.
Tormé's scat singing becomes a prominent part of these arrangements, especially on "Sweet Georgia Brown" where, at a blistering tempo, Tormé fires off scat exchanges with alto saxophonist Gary Foster, trumpeter Jack Sheldon and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The arrangement is filled with quotes, opening with the "Lulu" verse, incorporating an entire chorus of Gerry Mulligan's "Roundhouse" and using "Rose Of The Rio Grande" as a solo backdrop.
The album's stunner is a medley which takes "The Trolley Song," a song of first love, and moves the relationship into matrimony with "Get Me To The Church On Time." The opening verse of "Trolley" modulates from D-flat to D at its halfway point. There is another modulation (to E-flat) at the beginning of the chorus, and that's when this trolley moves! At perhaps the fastest tempo on any Dek-tette record, Tormé and the Dek-tette speed through two choruses, which includes a half-chorus of lightning-quick improvised exchanges with Tormé, Foster, Sheldon and Hamilton. The second chorus is never actually completed: at the words, "When the universe reels," Paich inserts a transition and Tormé goes into an original verse, "We met on the trolley/and we fell in love. . . ."
There is another key change (back to D-flat) to introduce the tune, "Get Me To The Church On Time." Before the Dek-tette joins in, there is a cute eight-bar passage where Tormé's primary backing is the tuba in a mocking "whump, whump" accompaniment that emulates the English music-hall style that was the basis of the original tune. Tormé sings one chorus of "Church," then, with an unassisted modulation, moves back to E-flat for a final half-chorus of "Trolley." But Paich has saved his best joke for last: at the closing lyric, "to the end of the line," Paich uses the Dek-tette to simulate the trolley's slowing and stopping. There is a long descending glissando to two eighth notes--a motive used in several previous Dek-tette charts -- but here, the second note is held, while Hamilton's brushes simulate the gradual slowing of the steam engine. (OK, so trolley cars don't have steam engines. It's still a great effect!)
In December 1989, Tormé, Paich and the Dek-tette traveled to Tokyo to perform at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival. Their concert was videotaped for Japanese television and recorded by Concord Jazz as the Dek-tette's final album, Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette In Concert Tokyo. There's no new material for the Dek-tette here but there are superior versions of earlier triumphs. The "Bossa Nova Potpourri" medley, originally recorded on Reunion and featuring "One Note Samba," "How Insensitive" and "The Gift" not merely strung together but interwoven beneath each other, features an extended tag with Tormé scatting over the surging rhythm section fueled by John Van Ohlen's drums. Tormé replaces Van Ohlen at the drums for a powerful "Cottontail" (previously recorded on Paich's instrumental LP, I Get A Boot Out Of You) which evolves into a recreation of the Benny Goodman/Gene Krupa duet from "Sing, Sing, Sing.” Of the remakes from the original Dek-tette albums, only "On The Street Where You Live" and "The Carioca" are completely successful. On "Just In Time" pianist Allen Farnham compromises the mood of imminent danger by comping throughout the first chorus, and on "When The Sun Comes Out" a trombone is substituted for the absent French horn of original Dek-tette member Vince De Rosa, losing the creamy sound that only De Rosa seemed capable of producing.
Before his passing, Marty Paich told me that he wanted to do further recordings with the Dek-tette, including collaborations with young, upcoming singers. Unfortunately, those projects never happened. Now that Tormé has left us too, we'll never hear his up-to-date interpretations of the Dek-tette classics. However, the concept of the Dek-tette lives on with its last pianist, Allen Farnham, who has created charts with instrumentation similar to the Dek-tette for singer Susannah McCorkle. While these charts do not echo Paich's cool jazz leanings, it is nice to know that the concept still lives. And if that's not enough for you, just put on Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley again.
Mel Tormé with the Marty Paich Dek-tette (currently reissued as Lulu's Back In Town). Rhino 75732
Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire. Bethlehem 20-3082*.
Mel Tormé, California Suite. Bethlehem 5026*.
Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley. Verve 821 581.
Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette, Reunion. Concord Jazz 4360.
Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-tette In Concert, Tokyo. Concord Jazz 4382.
*= out of print; numbers listed are the last known CD reissues.