It was inevitable and right that Mel Torme’s favorite professional hangout, the Hollywood Bowl, would serve up a tribute to his memory Wednesday night a little over a year after his death (he would have been 75 next week). And indeed, it provided for several emotional moments that will linger for a long time.
It looked like a tough assignment on paper. How do you get a proper handle on someone with so many talents — that of singer, actor, composer, arranger, drummer, author, collector, pilot and raconteur? Moreover, Torme’s career poses an odd dilemma; despite his sky-high reputation among musicians and public name recognition, it’s hard to think of a single song that he “owned” per se (his composition “The Christmas Song” comes closest, but that’s associated more with Nat Cole).
One solution was to have a virtual Mel right there with us via several entertaining historic film collages and video performances on giant video screens flanking the shell. Unlike other icons whose best years were captured only in scratchy-sounding, faded black-and-white images, Torme was lucky enough to have lived into the digital era, still singing in top form — indeed, he got better as he aged — so his later performances had a startling vibrancy. With Torme singing “The Christmas Song” onscreen to a gorgeous string/wind arrangement and Maureen McGovern weaving around his lines live onstage, this virtual duet seemed achingly real, uncontrived.
Every singer sounded inspired. The idiosyncratic Cleo Laine will always be an acquired taste but she was in fine, gracious form, the odd crooning mannerisms held in check, and husband John Dankworth decorated her lines with gently swinging flights on clarinet and saxophones. McGovern shook off all notions of blandness with some astonishingly agile vocals, particularly the high-speed scat display on “I’m Late.” And Steve March Torme flashed many of the family genes in a polished, extroverted “Lulu’s Back in Town” with a swinging trio of Torme alums anchored by pianist Paul Smith.
Having a big band on hand was a necessity on this occasion, and the expert Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra wasted little time getting down to the theme of the night. Clarinetist Ken Peplowski played the Benny Goodman role to the hilt with his articulate modern swing style, and actor Harry Anderson — the Torme-worshipping judge on “Night Court” — amiably played the Torme fan in real life.