BWW Reviews: TODD MURRAY's Show (and CD) 'Croon' Is An Unabashed Valentine to Intimate Vocal Artistry

"Lover, when I'm near you . . ." sings the debonair Todd Murray this past Monday night at Birdland, mere feet away from rapt eyes into which he pours himself. He's performing the waltzy song acoustically, voice full out in opposition to lyric mood. The back of the house undoubtedly finds sound muted. "This is how you would've heard a band singer in 1925, before a new technique called 'crooning'," he tells us. "From the time I started working, they always called me a crooner." (The term itself goes back to the 15th century definition: To utter a low, murmuring sound.)

Stepping in front of the microphone, Murray then delivers a languorous, declarative "I Want to Be Loved (with Inspiration)" and a mid-tempo, Latin "Lover, When I'm Near You," embodying the vocal finesse and authenticity that can be achieved when one doesn't have to raise one's voice. Bobbysoxers would've screamed.

We learn that Bing Crosby, who sang as if speaking, was uncomfortable with any lyric that held the word "love." Frank Sinatra, who followed Crosby as America's male singing idol, had no such inhibition, but feeling the term implied "old fashioned," he called himself a saloon singer. (To his credit, despite the icon's centennial, Murray refrains from crowding the evening with numbers from "Old Blue Eyes.")

In a 1932 New York Times article, a Cardinal O'Connor describes the "fad" of crooning as . . . a degenerate form of singing containing the basest appeal to sexual emotions in the young. "It's as if singers had blues and yellows and now they were given the passion and intimacy of red," comments the able torchbearer before us.

This is a terrific show (highlights of performances at various venues in video below). The artist's deep, resonant voice, impeccable, unhurried phrasing, investment in lyrics, and warm sincerity holds the audience spellbound. That Murray also has a sense of humor about himself makes patter immensely appealing. (A jaunty "Learn to Croon" with Sean Harkness on ukulele is adorable.) That he's artistically self-demanding is reflected not only in performance, but also in solicitation of first-rate arrangements by a variety of musicians. Tonight's A-list band (also on the CD), who capably double as backup singers, includes: Alex Rybeck on piano, Sean Harknes on guitar (right in photo top), Steve Doyle on bass, and Dan Gross on percussion.

Selection of material is also singular. Charming, period arrangements of "Whispering" and an infectious "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps," eschewing its usual Latin interpretation for teasing, both offer harmonic backup reminiscent of The Mills Brothers or Lennon Sisters.

There are dreamy American Songbook choices like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "You Are Too Beautiful," eliciting a slight, controlled vibrato, stroked by brushes, borne on delicate piano; "You'll Never Know" (Harry Warren/Mack Gordon) with notes that linger long enough to circle a waist; and a rendition of Irving Berlin's "How Deep is the Ocean?" which is sheer matinee catnip. Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" swings by way of plucked bass, thrummed guitar, light cymbals and terpsichorean piano.

Rock and Rollers of the late 1950s/early 60s grew up in, and were influenced by, the 1940s. "Love Me Tender" and "I Can't Help Falling," popularized by Elvis Presley, are buttery. Both hold up better than expected as honest, potent expressions. Harkness embraces his instrument palpably channeling the music. Rybeck creates almost visible ribbons of melody. We sway.

Even a tempered "This Guy's in Love With You" (Burt Bacharach/Hal David) sounds less corny in this performer's hands. No mean feat. Without bounce and brightness, it becomes an unblushing admission. Murray's own ruminative lyric for "And I'm Leaving Today" (music by Alex Rybeck) shows Bacharach's influence but eschews the plastic packaging. Poetic sentiments are empathetic, its tune a restive stroll.

"You'll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine)" evokes the audience's spontaneous clapping in time. Starting with his back to us, arms up a la Saturday Night Fever, Murray sells it broad and deep with a subtle bit of knee and pelvis action. Suddenly we find ourselves singing the chorus: You're gonna miss my lovin . . . "Here comes that 70s fade . . . " Fun.

The highpoint of the show may be a completely original version of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man." Without even a growl, Murray's smoky tones, round edges, and soft consonants make the song rough and tender; sensual, backstreet, and heavy-lidded. I swear I heard an ssssss and know it wasn't there. One pictures him walking into a wet dawn hands in his pockets, collar up. A high-spirited "I Wish You Love" sends us off with a smile. The vocalist prefers happy. Todd Murray is the real deal.

The CD is available for purchase or download at: www.ToddMurray.com

Photo top courtesy of Takako Suzuki Harkness
Photo bottom courtesy of Stephen Sorokoff

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From This Author Alix Cohen

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