Imagine youre in Johnny Mercers hometown, Savannah, Ga. It is spring 1952, buds are budding, and you can hear train whistles in the distance.
That is how the singer and pianist Tony DeSare, a baby Sinatra, set the scene for his reverent centennial tribute, Mercer, Moon River and Me, at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on Tuesday evening. If there were a concordance of Mercer lyrics, which are steeped in nostalgic wanderlust, it would abound in images of a verdant Southern landscape crisscrossed with railroad tracks. Mr. DeSare shares some of Mercers bucolic sensibility. He told of growing up in rural New York State among cows and tractors while studying the violin and of veering into show business after earning a degree in business management.
The attitude Mr. DeSare brings to Mercer, although worshipful, is filtered through his appreciation of rock n roll, a style he said Mercer abhorred. His encore on Tuesday was a full-throttle piano rendition of Johnny B. Goode. If you compare Mercers lyrics for In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, with Chuck Berrys anthems, they share the same wildly playful exuberance.
For the most part Mr. DeSares singing was regulation post-Sinatra lounge. A polished, mild-mannered crooner whose voice is noticeably lighter than that of his peer Michael Bubl, he has just begun to develop the kind of interpretive audacity that transforms song lyrics into dramatic monologues. The cry-in-your-beer classic One for My Baby was confided in quiet, hesitant phrases until a blip of desperation this torch that I found must be drowned or it soon might explode momentarily poked through the glumness; the guitarist Ed Decker, fleshing out Harold Arlens melody, stood for Joe the bartender setting up drinks as he witnessed the narrators distress.
The simplicity of most of the arrangements for piano (Mr. DeSare), bass (Steve Doyle) and guitar (Mr. Decker) gave the ballads room to stretch. Somethings Gotta Give, taken at breakneck speed, was the closest thing to jazz.
The only misfire, a splashy piano rendition of Autumn Leaves, for which Mercer wrote the English lyrics but not the melody, found Mr. DeSare aimlessly barging around in the same stylistic no mans land once visited by Liberace in show pieces like Beer Barrel Polka.
Tony DeSare performs through Feb. 21
at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street, Manhattan