Before 1991, Steve Tyrell was known to just a handful of cognoscenti as the man who put BJ Thomas on the map by producing his version of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, which appeared on the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack in 1969. In 1999, Tyrell released his first CD as a vocalist, A New Standard, a slow burner that wound up spending 90 weeks on the jazz charts. What could create this kind of change in the life of a 50-something man, you ask. Sheer talent? Maybe talent could. But in this case, chances are it was the music biz that did it.
The biz. Working with people who know people, spending leisure time with other people who make lots of money, getting hooked up with projects. That kind of thing must have done it for Steve Tyrell. After spending decades producing records (commercial successes such as the 1986 Linda Ronstadt/James Ingram duet “Somewhere Out There”), Tyrell popped up in the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride as the leader of the wedding band, and did music for the sequel. Those soundtrack recordings got Mr. Tyrell a record deal.
Now comfortably at his second label, Tyrell is on his sophomore release Standard Time, and he’s got an enthusiastic following. In case you hadn’t picked up on this by his titles, he sings standards: “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, “It Had to Be You”, “Let’s Fall In Love”, “Stardust”, “Someone to Watch Over Me”.
There is something really wonderful about these songs as they appear on Standard Time, something that makes it almost irresistibly listenable. That ineffable something is not, however, Steve Tyrell.
Tyrell sounds a bit like his old protégé BJ Thomas (they both come from Houston, Texas), only more raspy - he’s a solid pop tune-carrier with a stint of serious smoking in his voice. Nothing wrong with raspy, mind you, but it’s such an awfully nice raspy. His raspy is polished, as if he heard Tom Waits and decided he wanted to be the lite-n-easy version. Tyrell appears on the Martha Stewart show, for pete’s sake. His is a mass-market consumable raspy which his label describes as “rich and soothing”.
If there were a kind of inverse karaoke machine which would strip out his vocals, this CD would be one to keep. The instrumentation is plain fantastic. Using his producer skills, clout and smarts, Tyrell gathered a handful of original jazz players for both his CDs, and their appearance in his combos give the songs real swing and class. Aged from 60- to 80-something, trumpet player Clark Terry, “Toots” Thielemans on harmonica, sax man Plas Johnson, pianist Joe Sample and trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison perform with inspiring skill.
Actually, the tense there is a little wrong. “Sweets” died in 1999 shortly after recording Tyrell’s first CD, and his appearance on this CD is one of those Natalie-Cole-magically-sings-with-her-dead-dad anachronisms. The record company says that on the Tyrell and Sweets “share a special moment” on the track together. Creepy.
At the other end of the age spectrum is Jane Monheit, a 20-something singer of good repute with a crystal voice and exacting timing. Her appearance on the duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” shines.
So how, if the instrumentation is wonderful and the songs are unimpeachable classics, can this record fall flat? It’s not the raspiness in Tyrell’s voice that does it - rather, it’s what’s not there, and that’s passion. Energy. Variation. Wistfulness. Joy. The only emotion I can discern is a smirking check-me-out, dude attitude that isn’t obnoxious enough to elevate to the level of brash charm. If Tyrell has any deep emotions, he has no inkling of how to connect them with his singing.
And this leads to the issue of classics. If you can hear June Christy’s heart shatter doing “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, Chet Baker drifting off in “Someone to Watch Over Me”, and Frank Sinatra singing anything here - which you can - you deserve a decent reason to plop down 20 bucks and hear those songs again. Contemporary vocalists have to meet the challenge of a deep, rich heritage, and Tyrell doesn’t cut it; he doesn’t even sound like he’s paid much attention to the words he sings. He knows the sequence, and he knows how other people before him sang them, but he hasn’t given them a real listen.
He should have stayed the leader of a fictional wedding band.