Mel Tormé

Mel Tormé's California Suite [Bethlehem]

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Mel Tormé's California Suite originated in 1949 and was the first blossom of his interest in composing and expanding the palette of traditional pop beyond crooning. Recorded while he was at Capitol, the original conception was a 20-minute piece recorded with the help of arrangers Billy May and Neal Hefti plus Peggy Lee on vocals. In response to support from fans and his next label, Bethlehem, Tormé expanded California Suite to a full LP eight years later. His new friend, Marty Paich, gave the arrangements an upbeat feel, splendidly evoking the go-go '50s. Though many tracks border on that cagey territory between a pep rally and a tourism commercial, the music is bright and bouncy, with Tormé gliding over the arrangements with sheer grace and even finding time to get in an occasional dig at Californian sensibilities ("That's not smog/It's just heavy dew"). Though the titles are a bit silly -- he had lately been inspired by Johnny Mercer -- Tormé saves the album with some of the best compositions of his career. He flirts with song structure (sounds inspired more by musical comedy than traditional pop) and writes clever lyrics that reveal a layer beneath the superficiality of the song titles. He also sounds in what could be the best voice of his entire career, rivaled only by Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire or Swings Shubert Alley. In essence, Mel Tormé's California Suite perfectly evokes many of the qualities (positive and negative) that characterized the '50s in Southern California -- a region breathless with anticipation of a glorious future, anxious to start consuming everything an American family should, and just a bit giddy with all the splendor.

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