The Jazz Singer

New Yorkers love to talk about today's popular male vocalists, and how they stack up (or not) against the blessed Sinatra. This no-win comparison is especially common when it comes to the young pianist and singer Tony DeSare, who arrived in New York City at the ripe old age of 22 and quickly landed a starring role in an off-Broadway musical called Our Sinatra, playing the role of well, just guess.

Variety immediately praised his performance, highlighting his charm. DeSare himself, speaking with New Times via telephone from the Las Vegas Hilton, says he's "flattered for sure" by the Sinatra comparisons, but adds, "I've never made an effort to copy him."

His comment rings true. Only rarely does the now-31-year-old slip into that familiar, bouncy Sinatra phrasing. His 2005 debut album, Want You, showcases a warm voice, alternately lispy and bell-clear. His lower register, displayed on tracks such as "How I Will Say I Love You," is strong, resonant, and satisfying.

As a performer, though, DeSare is just as likely to elicit comparisons to a lesser-known predecessor, the late Bobby Short, a self-proclaimed "saloon singer" who combined cheery between-song patter with enchantingly elegant singing. DeSare himself says he appreciates Short's seemingly effortless bond with his audiences: "I definitely have that cabaret element in my shows, talking to the audience between each song, adding context, along with the jazz idiom."

Born upstate, DeSare moved to New York City in 1999. Unlike most of the young guys who move to the big city with dreams of becoming the next Old Blue Eyes, DeSare already had three years of professional experience at dinner clubs in the Catskills and in New Jersey. Club owners at nightspots such as Birdland immediately recognized DeSare as a guy with a winning combination: looks, personality, a good voice, piano skills — and an air of confidence that got him noticed.

And not just by fans. DeSare has also attracted some of the best backing players in the business. His latest release, Last First Kiss, debuted at number eight on Billboard's top jazz albums chart. The collection showcases the exquisite fretwork of the venerable swing-jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, along with the steady pulsing of Mike Lee on bass. Pizzarelli and Lee have been working with DeSare for three years, and Lee is co-author of several DeSare originals, which are impressive in their melodic maturity and emotional depth.

Of Pizzarelli (father of jazz vocalist and guitarist John Pizzarelli), DeSare says, "Bucky is the consummate professional. But more than that, he's a guy who's an example of how to live your life. He's 81 now, you know, and even during the third set, at 1:00 in the morning, he gives no sign that he's tired."

Pizzarelli's contribution to Last First Kiss, and to DeSare's career, is hard to overstate. The mere fact that Pizzarelli is an ongoing presence in DeSare's band gives the young singer cred in jazz circles. Even on a relatively modern session such as this, Pizzarelli's picking and "chord solos" manage to evoke the fabled Thirties swing of Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt.

The album's title alludes to both a DeSare original, and to his signature cover of Prince's 1986 megahit "Kiss." His version moves with a thumping stand-up bass and a whirring Hammond B-3 organ. The vocals are cool, but not too cool, preserving some of the original's subtle cynicism. "Let's Just Stay In" is the disc's standout original. "Kick off your shoes," DeSare croons. "Turn off your phone/The world is on its own." The Rat Pack's ring-a-ding swagger is impossible to miss. There's also a laid-back, satisfying rendition of Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move." The rest of the disc presents DeSare's takes on Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Sammy Cahn, classics that sound even better in a live setting, with the unintentional percussion of glasses clinking behind the bar.

The trio touring in support of the album will not include Pizzarelli. In fact DeSare will do without a guitar entirely, employing Lee on bass and Brian Czach on drums to complement his vocal and piano stylings. His trusty rhythm section is all he needs for nightclub dates, but DeSare holds his own in larger ensembles, too. For the 2005 Harold Arlen Centennial Festival, Sam Arlen, son of the legendary jazz composer, handpicked DeSare to sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Not bad for a sophomore recording artist looking to build on his credibility.

DeSare shows a lot of poise for a guy who's barely into his thirties. "When you hear someone play jazz live," he notes, "it's a celebration." As he sees it, he's part of much longer tradition, carrying forward the Great American Song. Which is why he makes it a point to cover more recent and unexpected singers, ranging from Prince to Tom Waits.

"The true mark of any great song is that it's stylistically flexible enough to sound great in the jazz vein," he observes. And thanks to DeSare, jazz audiences have the chance to enjoy popular songs from the past 30 years. Will Prince's "Kiss" become a permanent page in the Great American Songbook? Coming from DeSare, the idea sounds anything but far-fetched.

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