Pairing Mel Torme and Peggy Lee is such a natural idea that it’s surprising to learn that it hasn’t been done since 1951. Stepping into the vacuum, the Philharmonic Assn. delivered this historic coup Friday night at Hollywood Bowl, if only for about 12 heartwarming minutes at the end of the evening.
Why was this an inevitable team? Because these veteran singers, prolific songwriters both, have strong roots in jazz and voices that can groove with a floating quality over a rhythm section. And in their brief period onstage, they interlocked mellifluously in total harmony, while bringing highly individual yet compatible swinging styles to a buoyant “Yes, Indeed.”
For Lee, 72, who has been battling health problems in recent years, this was a rare public appearance. Yet her deceptively casual, controlled vocal technique is basically unimpaired–and she walked on and off the stage with only minimal assistance.
In her solo segment, Lee could glide easily on the gently swinging “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and the plush bossa nova cushion of the L.A. Philharmonic in “‘S Wonderful.” Her keen acting instincts could reinvigorate the sardonic narrative of “Is That All There Is” and lend a wavering yet touching sense of nostalgia to “I’ll Be Seeing You.” On another level of nostalgia, she still does two verses of her once-innocuous, now-controversial 1947 hit “Manana.”
Torme, meanwhile, continues to enjoy the view from the peak of his career, recording prolifically (his latest album for Concord Jazz is a duo project with the idiosyncratic Cleo Laine called “Nothing Without You”), sharpening his skills. At 66, he still has the control to peel off some exquisitely beautiful high notes at soft volume, using his voice evermore like a horn.
The amazing thing is that Torme continues to grow as a singer, displaying increasing sensitivity with fewer wayward mannerisms. Yet he also remains the irrepressible ham, sallying forth on a hilariously mean parody of rap, pounding away with gusto on Gene Krupa’s drum kit at the close of his cleverly constructed Benny Goodman medley.
Through much of this, Keith Lockhart and the Philharmonic operated as little more than a glamorous studio orchestra, not getting in the way, but not really enhancing matters.
On their own, Lockhart and company offered a spotty, lumbering account of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” dances, a dutiful John Williams “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” and a peculiar piece by Frank Proto, “The Voyage That Johnny Never Knew,” in which “Johnny Comes Marching Home” eventually is squeezed into the helmet of a Wagnerian Valkyrie.