Lovin’ the essence of Steve March Tormé

Steve March Tormé performs at Pepperdine Saturday. Photo by Ray Santana

Following in the footsteps of a legend is always a tough row to hoe. But for Steve March Tormé, son of jazz great Mel Tormé and stepson of TV host Hal March, the trip is proving to be rewarding and getting easier all the time.

His first three records and numerous concert dates have earned generally glowing reviews, which in some ways he didn’t expect. “[The] reviews were very kind,” March Tormé said in a phone interview. “They could have said a lot of unkind things about Mel’s kid. It would have been so easy for critics to rake me over the coals, but they didn’t. I’m grateful for that.”

Tormé, who lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Angela, and 6-month-old daughter Ruby, will appear in concert with his trio Saturday, 8 p.m., at Pepperdine University’s Smothers Theater.

Except for his ease with scat singing, he’s made no effort to mimic his father’s unique voice, known for decades as “The Velvet Fog.” Tormé said, “I can imitate him but why would I do that?” Coming from a different generation, Tormé grew up listening to Todd Rundgren and other pop and rock artists. While still in high school, he had several bands on which he played guitar and piano. “I only stopped playing instruments onstage when I became a jazz singer,” he said. “I still use the piano for writing.”

Pop artists of the day were expected to write their own material, hence the inclusion of original songs on his first two records. However, there was resistance from radio programmers to put original songs into rotation on jazz stations, even though the first jazz album, “Swingin’ at the Blue Moon Bar & Grill,” featured a duet trading scat riffs with his famous dad on the Nat King Cole classic “Straighten Up and Fly Right.”

“It seems in this whole genre of jazz singing, you’re not supposed to sing original material on a jazz record,” Tormé said. “They just freak. You couldn’t get a record deal with originals.”

So, his latest CD, “The Essence of Love” (Frozen Rope Records), features 14 jazz standards from the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael arranged by pianist and longtime collaborator Steve Rawlins, with Grant Geissman on guitar, Paul Morin on bass and Gordon Peeke on drums.

“Steve played keyboards at my first wedding,” Tormé explained. “We became friends, and that lasted longer than the marriage. He’s a very tasty player. I think Steve does wonderful harmony, great substitution chords. He’s a good vocal arranger too.”

Tormé said doing the old standards could get boring, so he relies on Rawlins’ sense of complex harmony and changing rhythms to keep the material fresh. “We arrange everything together. Basically, I’ll give him the idea of what I think I hear, but he does the bulk work,” Tormé said. “I leave and then he does the hard stuff. Then he’ll play it for me the next day. He has a nice ear for taking things left of center without making them so strange that people don’t recognize the song.”

Tormé said he wanted to do “I Only Have Eyes For You,” originally a 12/8 doo-wop tune, which would be out of character for his CD. “So I thought it would be a good samba.”

Changing the rhythm of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was Rawlins’ idea. “He said if I was going to do a jazz album, I should do it as a jazz waltz.”

Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” gets a fresh take with the inclusion of the seldom-heard verse. And Johnny Mercer’s “This Time the Dream’s on Me,” obscure because it’s difficult to sing, suits Tormé’s warm baritone and flexible range.

And, of course, he can’t resist putting in at least one Beatles tune. Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will” seems right at home with the American Songbook standards. “If it was up to me I’d do more Beatles tunes,” Tormé said. “But it’s risky because I don’t care how well you do them, theirs are great. I like their records so much. ‘I Will’ is one I could do something with; it’s not one of their signature tunes. So we could change the harmony a bit, update it.”

While the Pepperdine concert will feature some new originals and things from the first three albums, Tormé said, “It will also preview songs from the tribute to my father, ‘Tormé Sings Tormé,'” which will open at the McAllum Theater in Palm Desert in January, then tour the country.

“One of the things I do in the show at Pepperdine, is to explain who I am and where I came from,” Tormé said. “People think I grew up with Mel and all the jazz guys. But I grew up with Hal, and there were his borsht belt comedian friends around the house all the time telling jokes.”

Tormé’s stepfather died when he was 17. And though Tormé did several successful TV shows-he was featured vocalist on ABC’s “New $100,000 Name That Tune” for two years-he said March never encouraged him to follow his TV career. “He always said just do your best whatever you do,” Tormé said. “He was grooming me to be a baseball player, that’s what I thought I wanted to be. But he knew I had musical ability. And I learned a love of the language from him.”

As for advice from his jazz icon dad, Tormé remembers, “About all he said was you really should make sure to develop your lower register. Which is different because every pop singer wants to develop their higher register. But what I gleaned from him was his professionalism. He really was a perfectionist. He always gave it 100 percent.”

And if he were to criticize his own work so far, he admits, “I think I’m better live. On my records, I may have been a little too safe on these first three records. I know when I sing live I take a lot more chances. I think we haven’t captured that on records yet.”