"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview"
-Strange Little Planet-
"Strange Little Planet" is a new project by James Tormé, son of the legendary jazz singer, composer, drummer and actor…Mel Tormé.
James Tormé, an extraordinary singer with immense talent and energy has once again, created a standout CD that is already creating a buzz of excitement in the industry.
James grew up and spent time with an immeasurable group of jazz legends (Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Duke Ellington, George Shearing, Buddy Rich & more). You can understand why James Tormé’s music, from the beginning of the opening track to the very last song which is the title track “Strange Little Planet” has truly something special here for every musical taste.
We would like to welcome James Tormé to JazzMonthly.com.
Jazz Monthly: The more one listens to Strange Little Planet, the more the rhythmic blends and artistic arrangements keep drawing you in. There’s no one genre to put this superb project into… which is a great compliment to you. How would you describe your music?
James Tormé: I sometimes call it “sophistipop”. That expression was I believe coined sometime in the mid-80’s to describe pop music with advanced jazz arranging. The Quincy Jones effect on Michael Jackson’s music for example. Then, in late 80’s/early they used the phrase to describe jazz-inspired pop groups like, for example, Hue & Cry from the U.K. I just try to keep pushing boundaries with my music. But in truth there are a lot of moments on this record that were carbonated by certain Gospel, Pop and R&B acts I loved during childhood. Take 6, George Michael, Donald Fagen (and Steely Dan), Prince. Things like that.
JM: It’s immediately clear from the beginning of the opening track your voice has outstanding intonation. Is it a direct result from working at it so hard or do you feel it’s an accepted natural ability?
JT: That one is truly genetic. I’ve had more or less perfect pitch for as long as I can remember. There was a pitch test they gave us all back in elementary school. I was the only kid who got 100%. There was no prize. Why not I ask myself.
JM: Tell us about your musical journey?
JT: I swam in a dichotomous lake of pop and jazz music all through childhood. My father, a jazz singer, was giving me musical cues and even teaching me to sing before I could even speak. It worked. At 14, while other kids feasted on Beastie Boys, Duran Duran and Genesis, I was busying myself obsessing over a series of audio tapes I’d made from old jazz 45s and 78’s, all my father’s. They were primarily from the 30’s and 40’s. Many were records that he himself had recorded as a neophyte with Artie Shaw, both as solo sides and with his vocal group ‘The Mel-Tones’. I absorbed it all. I sang along. I made up new harmonies. It was an education unto itself. My pops was a master vocal arranger with a genius for harmony and incredible instincts for jazz.
But unlike his, my initial infatuation with music wasn’t caused by Charlie Spivak, Bix Biderbeck or Bessie Smith. As a ‘much later model’, I was being wooed by the likes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, Prince, George Michael, all by way of my bedroom clock radio. We moved with our mother to the UK and where Eurthymics, Phil Collins and Paul McCartney took my interest and where the DJ’s of the burgeoning Dance music/EDM movement captured my imagination in my late teens. Then, during my college years back in L.A. at UCLA I loved acts like The Roots, Tribe Called Quest, Maxwell and D’Angelo as well as continuing to be interested in jazz — primarily a love of a cadre of female jazz singers, all of whom have rubbed off on my own singing. Included in these are Carmen McRae, June Christy, Chris Connor, Margaret Whiting and the great Ella Fitzgerald. I later also discovered Edie Gourmet and a few other singers like Marlena Shaw who are also ridiculous. The influence of these people seems to find its way into every jazz concert I do. And I love that.
James and his dad Mel Tormé
Dad would play the Hollywood Bowl every year and they were all great concerts, but I have particularly fond memories of one he did on July 19th 1991. Opening for him was a young Bobby McFerrin, and another act still in its first two years of major success…Take 6. Both were amazing. The latter’s superior close harmony control and ambitious arrangements made an indelible impression on me. Then my old man came on and absolutely destroyed. So great. I’ve never been quite the same since that concert.
Consequently, when I ‘came of age’ myself, I took several steps on the way to a Pop/Soul/R&B music career but then made a decision to go in the direction of jazz. It wasn’t an easy decision but it turned out to be a good one. For the next several years I had the privilege of touring with prestigious big bands and symphony orchestras appearing at great festivals all over the world. It was a lot of fun. My debut album ‘Love for Sale’ came out and found its way to the top end of the Billboard, Amazon Jazz, and iTunes jazz charts and also won a couple of awards. By most people’s standards, things were going very well for me in jazz world. But I wasn’t entirely fulfilled.
Then, one day in 2015, I was doing an interview on Ronnie Scott’s radio in London, and the host invited me to go see a new young London-based vocal group called ‘Vive”. I went and loved it. A few days later I got on a plane back to L.A. having downloaded Vive’s self-titled debut album. I sat down on the plane and played it. Long-dormant emotions bubbling up to the surface. Tears welled in my eyes as I was transported to memories of that first taste of Take 6 at the Hollywood Bowl in 1991. The feeling of seeing my pops every summer at the Bowl. The whole experience revived my appetite for the Pop/Soul/R&B I'd been performing at the outset of my career. All of that had gone on hold a long time ago, and I had no formal plans to do anything specific. Not yet, anyway.
Then the Universe took care of that, when just a few months later I was approached by an old friend’s company about recording ‘a vocal harmony-style album for the U.S. market’. I was like “let me see…absolutely!” That led to getting this new album recorded. I’m lucky enough to have a great home for this and some future projects in the form of Paul Ring and his Bungalo/Universal label. He’s a legendary 30-year veteran at Universal who has turned several things into gold recently. But more importantly, I know he knows music inside out. It’s much more than a business relationship. It’s a real friendship. And that brings us to now. Here I am back in he pop realm. And feeling very good about what I’m doing. Somehow I seem to have landed on my feet, again.
JM: The Album notes have an acknowledgement of "additional voices." These voices play such a vital role in every tune on the album. You yourself are also part of the "additional voices." How did these voices evolve into a major part of your sound? Also, take us through the creative process with you as both lead and accompanying vocals.
JT: Harmonies have always been a huge part of my fascination with music. I come from a family where 3 people are singing something in the kitchen, and you get a weird look if you can’t add a fourth harmony line. I was exposed to a lot of this stuff from being a toddler. My father had a film collection, and when we were little he would screen old B- Movies like 1943’s Let’s Go Steady (starring him and the Mel-Tones his wartime vocal group). They were full of killin’ vocal arrangements that he’d written himself. We’d watch them again and again. It became part of who you were. I’ve always tried to squeeze some good vocal harmonies into whatever I’m doing. John Daversa and David Paich, who produced my first LP Love For Sale actually had to had to hold me back a bit in that regard That was the right decision for that record. By contrast, this record is all about harmony. Vocal harmony. Societal harmony. Harmony.
In terms of the process, I sang the majority of the background vocals on this album but also had help from a few other London singers on a few songs. The vocals were mostly arranged by James Rose and Sam Robson (both founding members of Vive), both of whom also contributed multiple original songs to the album. I then wrote and added quite a lot of additional vocals, horn parts and so on for a number of the songs. That’s totally normal for me. As an artist, you just have inject as much of yourself into it as possible so that it’s highly personalized, and then you can really invest in it emotionally as a performer. My vocal ad-libs were all sung off the cuff. John Rosheuval, who produced the king’s share of my vocals, gave me the freedom to basically ’play jazz’, which was very cool.
What’s also a little different is that, based on the schedule we were trying to stick to, I never got to learn or rehearse any of these songs prior to recording. So I just had to more or less ‘show up and react’. But years of being a ‘jazz’ rather than ‘pop-oriented’ singer — never singing the same thing the same exact way twice — of ripping spontaneous ‘scat solos’ as a big part of my interplay with instrumentalists — that had prepared me quite well for this. Although the whole approach was a bit of a gamble, it really worked out out because it kept the whole thing very fresh and honest.
JM: It’s noted in the press that you give a very impressive live performance. Did you always have that energy and inner command to perform? What can you attribute this to?
JT: Well it’s true, my father was a tremendous live performer. You could literally record just about any live show he ever did and make an album out of it. As a mere mortal myself, I’m learning all the time. I got a great foundation watching him and I have the benefit of a lot of the same ‘genes and circuitry’. But, like most artists, a lot of what I do is just stuff I’ve developed myself over time and by way of hundreds of shows. I’ve also spent a lot of time in my life drinking in countless hours of old footage. Nat Cole. Sinatra. My Dad. Michael Jackson. Ella. Bonnie Raitt. Sammy Davis, James Brown. So I’ve got to give some credit to the process of visual and auditory osmosis too. What these artists all have in common, it seems to me, is that you’ve never heard them sing a world they don’t mean 100%.
JM: There are so many delightful musical "twists and turns" that keep your listeners captivated, and you were able to bring this feeling to every single one of your tracks. What was the process of choosing, writing and arranging this material? How did you go about putting the group together?
JT: I still had jazz tour dates all through the period when the album was made, which presented some challenges but was also a sort of blessing because there was no time to overthink things. We just chose a group of relevant, relatable original songs that I knew I could bring something new to, then paired them with three covers that could act as connective tissue between this album and Love For Sale. I wanted to marry the sophistication of Take 6 and Earth Wind & Fire music and marry it to the top 40 feel-good vibe of great summer releases from the 80’s and early 90’s. Michael Jackson and Prince, Seal, George Michael. That kind of energy is where it’s at right now for me. I’m just very into it at the moment. Bruno Mars knows what I’m talking about. He’s one artist I see as capturing this kind energy with a couple of his recent songs like “24K Magic” and “Finesse”.
JM: Your haunting recording of "Portrait of Jennie" is one of the finest versions that we have ever heard at JazzMonthly.com. Nat Cole first recorded that around the same time that he recorded your Dad's opus "The Christmas Song." Is "Portrait of Jennie" a song that has always been in your repertoire? What was the vision behind this song?
JT: I was introduced to that song by my friend Danny Janklow. He’s an absolute genius saxophonist and composer. We used to do a lot of shows together here in L.A.. "Portrait Of Jennie” is one of Danny’s grandfather’s old favorites, so I learned it and one night we surprised him with it at Vitello’s in L.A. I subsequently fell in love with it. What a cool song. It serves dual purposes on the album. Firstly, something to musically connect this new album to my previous album Love For Sale. Secondly, the whole project is sort of my ‘tip of the hat’ to music history’s vocal groups, from my father's wartime group, The Mel-Tones and acts like the Hi-Los, to Take 6 and even Pentatonix. Even though Strange Little Planet isn’t strictly an accappela album, it features several accapela recordings, including this one. Even the sound of the brushes is human. I wanted to pay tribute to vocal group history, and that song’s inclusion was about saluting the mid-century part of that.
JM: The title track Strange Little Planet has everything; an immediately enjoyable opening, followed by a smooth and cool vocal that leads you right into a solid memorable hook. A crossover hit! What was the inspiration and development with this track?
JT: A couple years ago I was in London hanging out with James Rose, another super talented friend of mine who’s a great music artist in his own right. He had a simple vocal concept on a looping machine at his crib. It had two repeating lines, with harmonies:
"Isn’t it a strange little planet we’re from?
Were burnin’ down the bridges before we’ve begun…
I said “what is this?” He was like, “It’s just something I’m messing around with.” I loved the concept, and James was kind enough to let me take the idea away and flesh it out into a full song. I wrote the song about the rise of extremism/hyper-partisanship and subsequent collapse of dialogue in society. I wanted to talk about the craziness of the age we’re living in. It’s like we all need to go wash ourselves in the river and start over. Groupthink has taken over and everybody seems to have taken sides. We’ve lost our spirituality as well as our respect for each other. Our free ideas are being systematically suppressed by many of the major platforms and establishments that claim to nurture them. How crazy is that? The conversation has been killed off before it can begin. So the song is like a letter from me inviting people to come together, show each other some love and start again.
“I know you wanna run around selling your deception
but if you wanna kill the doubt
you gotta show affection”
Something about Strange Little Planet has always reminded me of Arrested Development’s Tennessee from 1992, which I loved. Both songs suggest we’ve gotten off the path and need some sort of leadership or divine intervention to lead us back to the more enlightened and generally better path. So we added part of the vocal line from it as a salute to Tennessee.
JM: It's impossible to sit still when you covered "Love Never Felt So Good." This "make you wanna dance" feel combined with dazzling vocals make it a real treat. What was your thought behind adding this track? How did it come about?
JT: People have always heard Michael Jackson influences in my voice. The aforementioned “Off The Wall” was my first tape, given to me along with an Emerson casette-corder to play it on. I was six. I literally wore the first tape out and had to get a new copy a few weeks later. It greatly influenced my singing and musical development. Twenty or so years later Chuck Mitchell, who signed me for my first album Love For Sale, named only one condition: that I would record a Michael song. I recorded “Rock With You” and it was just so natural. It became by far the most popular song from that album. So I’m continuing something that’s become a bit of a tradition by including another MJ track on this new album. “Love Never Felt So Good” is such a cool song. It has that same late 70’s/early 80’s vibe as “Off The Wall”, but it hasn’t been over-recorded yet. I thought the version done by Justin Timberlake mixed with Michaels’s original demo was very cool, but felt like I could do something a bit special vocally and also bring something new and different to the song by forming all the chords with my voice (instead of a keys or guitar) and writing some cool horn parts to create kind of a Quincy/ Earth Wind & Fire feel. Actually, Verdine White (from EWF) heard the song and is now going to play bass on a new remix of it, if you can believe it. We spent the evening together recently planning it. What an honor.
JM: You can tell that you have a true respect and reverence for some of the great jazz and pop vocal groups of the past. There is also such an original, modern sound on this CD. You should be very proud of your new album. There is truly something here for every musical taste. We wish you wonderful things with this project. What do you feel the album reflects about you as an artist and person at this point in time?
JT: I wanted a lot of things out of this album. I’ve always wanted to be an artist who could transcend genre. It would be nice to be seen as someone capable gluing all kinds of material together with my vocals, regardless of genre. There is only a select group of singers who have been able to do that. How wonderful it would be to be part of that club. I also have kind of a tradition of incorporating self-healing, philosophical themes into my music that I wanted to continue on Strange Little Planet. I hope this project shows my willingness to put out music designed to make a difference rather than just money. I wanted to celebrate both pop music and vocal harmony history in a way that was original. I’m humbled that you’ve picked up on it all. And I’m humbled by your kind compliments. It means more than I can say.