With Shots of Sinatra and Nat King Cole, Tony DeSare’s Cocktail Intoxicates

The singer-pianist proves that while hard-driving intensity can be very compelling, a more relaxed, laid back kind of a sound can also make for a highly entertaining evening.

Matt Baker
Tony DeSare. Matt Baker

Who is the dominant influence on the current generation of male singers who gravitate to what we call the Great American Songbook? I know most of you are answering Frank Sinatra even before I can finish asking the question, but there’s ample evidence that Nat King Cole is at least in the running, especially if those young men also happen to play piano.  

In the last year, at least three exceptional male singer-pianists have played Birdland, Peter Cincotti, Loston Harris, and now Tony DeSare. Each seems to have absorbed as much as they could from Sinatra and Cole, but they stir — or shake — the cocktail differently, and each has come up with a unique mix.  

Mr. Harris is perhaps the hardest swinging, the most driving rhythmically.  Mr. Cincotti may be the most intense and the funkiest, the one most informed by 21st century pop music. Mr. DeSare is probably the most subtle and the most restrained, the one who’s the least in your face. He too draws on both Frank and Nat, but he represents the mellower side of those colossi.  

Mr. DeSare proves that while hard-driving intensity can be very compelling, a more relaxed, laid back kind of a sound — particularly when combined with his considerable sincerity and charisma — can also make for a highly entertaining evening. 

The linchpin of Mr. DeSare’s quartet is the guitarist Ed Decker, a student of the late Bucky Pizzarelli, who himself was the 21st century’s strongest connection to two iconic rhythm players, Count Basie’s Freddie Green and King Cole’s Oscar Moore. Playing a Pizzarelli-special seven-string instrument, Mr. Decker lays down an easy, swinging beat. 

He and Mr. DeSare have worked together long enough to know how to lock down a particular groove, which sounds effortless but endlessly propulsive; they keep everything, as musicians used to say back in the day, “in the pocket.”  

Mr. DeSare opened his show during last week’s run at Birdland with “All or Nothing at All,” the 1939 song generally regarded as Sinatra’s first hit, but the particular beat that Messrs. DeSare and Decker (along with bassist Dylan Shamat and drummer Michael Klopp) generated made it sound like a Nat Cole interpretation of an iconic Sinatra number. He closed with a song famously recorded by Sinatra in 1954, “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die”; this almost became a cliche 70 years ago as the go-to nightclub act opener of its era — and thus it’s a clever twist to end with it.  

Between the opening and the close, Mr. DeSare and the quartet played a mixture of familiar standards and originals, and he has grown increasingly adept at writing his own words and music. Some of his songs seem to have familiar footprints, but that’s hardly to be held against them. 

“And That’s How I Will Say I Love You” is the song that, as Mr. DeSare expanded, Paul McCartney heard him play at the Carlyle and expressed his approval thereof. It has a lovely lyrical quality reminiscent of some of Billy Joel’s earlier, more purely romantic numbers, like “And So It Goes,” while also being a worthy followup to Mr. DeSare’s own “Lover’s Lullaby” of  2007.  

“New Orleans Tango” takes its title quite literally; it does indeed utilize that Argentine dance form. While it starts by evoking the mambo-era standard “Sway,” it eventually detours into a Crescent City parade beat à la Professor Longhair. An effective fermata, a well-timed pause, effectively catches the entire audience off guard.  

Like many of these, “Another Chance at My Heart” could easily be a deep cut from a 1950s Capitol album, with echoes of “Witchcraft.” “Speechless” made me think of Peter Allen or Marvin Hamlisch, with a ’70s retro-vaudeville kind of a groove. “That’s How I Feel For You,” written in less than 48 hours for a NPR competition, has a sinewy, minor key feeling like something Basie would have played, or even Dizzy Gillespie with “Birks Works.” 

Not everything he writes sounds like an older song; “Last First Kiss,” from his 2007 album of the same title, is a highly contemporary love song in waltz time. 

There were also standards, such as that unlikely Cole Porter cowboy song, “Don’t Fence Me,” and a romping “Hallelujah! I Love Her So.” “I’ve Got a World That Swings” was like a bone thrown to fans of Jerry Lewis and “The Nutty Professor” — and who isn’t?  

The ballad highlight of the evening was a stunning voice-guitar mashup of “I Concentrate on You” and “Mona Lisa.” Mr. DeSare can deliver a love song with a sweetness and a tenderness that few of his contemporaries can approach.

Tony DeSare has grown considerably in the nearly 20 years or so I’ve been listening to him, and he was a very strong artist to begin with. In general, he’s way less aggressive than Loston Harris or Peter Cincotti; rather than chasing after the crowd, he lets the audience come to him.  That has a considerable charm all its own.

The New York Sun

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