CD Review: A SONG FOR YOU (Steve Tyrell)

by Tony Frankel on March 9, 2018


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Look, it’s a matter of taste.

Steve Tyrell began his career in the ’60s as a music supervisor for Scepter Records in the 1960s where his mentors were Burt Bacharach and Hal David (Tyrell even tagged fellow Texan B.J. Thomas to sing “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Then, after more than 25 years of producing major song hits for popular artists (including Grammy Award-winning collaborations with Rod Stewart, Diana Ross and Linda Ronstadt) and several movie soundtracks, Tyrell recorded a demo for the film Father of the Bride. The producers liked his slowed down, sentimental take so much that his version of “The Way You Look Tonight” was used in the 1991 film. That song — and no requirement to get a second job to finance his new career — has led to singing for four of the last five presidents, playing for Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace, and just last December dedicating Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” to Hillary Clinton and her family as his show’s closing number at the ritzy Café Carlyle in New York (he just finished the thirteenth year of his Carlyle residency in the revered holiday slot, having taken over for Bobby Short in 2005).

And now he’s releasing his 13th album, A Song for You.

Are any of you wondering, “Who is this guy? I’ve never heard of him.” Well, nine of his ten “American Standard” albums have reached the top five on Billboard’s Jazz charts, including the albums This Guy’s in Love, I’ll Take Romance, Standard Times and A New Standard. In many ways, he’s as far from jazz as Miles Davis is from Celine Dion (I’d call him Easy Listening), but he chooses from the Great American Songbook, swing, and the blues. He has that growly, gnarly, rugged laid-back voice of someone conversant with New Orleans blues, but without that old-soul sound. Tom Waits, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Billy Vera, and Joe Cocker come to mind, but Tyrell — while he has more vocal cred than his mentor Bacharach — isn’t in the same league as them. No one ever said that Tyrell was the next best thing or the greatest singer (he is by all accounts a terrific entertainer), but he has a loyal, if not huge, following. And A Song for You, from New Design Records (a Warner label), elucidates why.

This is a comfort-food entertainer, who looks amazing for 73. From soft country to smooth jazz, every track seems geared to soothe and romanticize, which makes me guess his core fan base is older women (“Try a Little Tenderness,” “Come Live with Me”).

He has that American Heartland twang in Van Morrison’s “Someone Like You,” but it’s too white-bread to pierce the soul, like VM can, veering dangerously close to background music. Another middle-of-the-road facet is Bob Mann’s comforting convalescent home arrangements, which can resort to syrupy strings. While there’s terrific work from Mann’s flute and David Finck’s bass, the quintet on the great Arlen/Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine” is at odds with Tyrell’s wavering voice, which sounds more like someone who has been gulping strong lemonade than Jack Daniels. And the title track is reminiscent of The Carpenters style more than Leon Russell (and I love Karen’s cover from her Song for You album). Also, most of the album’s arrangements don’t allow for the musicians’ personalities to shine. (And it’s fascinating to note that the personnel changes radically from song to song; there’s seven different piano players on twelve tracks.)

His appeal is clear at the top of “When I Fall in Love” — a tender plaint with Mann’s soulful guitar. But then that disappears almost immediately and it’s back to cruise ship. “The Good Life” and “Them There Eyes” goes in a much more interesting swing direction –aided in great part with horns arranged by Tom Kubis — but there’s no danger and no dynamic (like there is in Billie Holiday’s cover); it’s Lounge Lizard with a great band. I also appreciated his vocals on “To Be Loved” (and Mann’s sax; God, is there any instrument this magician can’t play?!), but those gentle background vocals and mellow-mood style make it all so inoffensive and innocuous, which — no offense — is something my mom would love. And while “Always on My Mind” has the best vocals, it’s really really hard to comprehend why there’s any reason to take this rendition over Willie Nelson’s version — unless you’re like my mom. It’s just another homogenized song for you.

A Song for You
Steve Tyrell
New Design and East West Records (a division of Warner)
1 disc | 12 tracks | 47:09
released February 9, 2018
available at Amazon and iTunes

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