Bryan Anthony isn’t worried about musical labels. Whether you call him a jazz singer with pop sensibilities or a pop vocalist steeped in jazz, he’s staked his artistic identity in the vast and beloved collection of songs that emanated from Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley in the first half of the 20th century. His new album A Night Like This is the work of a performer with the personality, technique, and panache required to inhabit the music of Gershwin, Berlin, Jimmy McHugh, Vernon Duke, and the other ingenious tunesmiths responsible for the American Songbook.
The album pivots around Anthony’s creative partnership with pianist Gary Norian, whose beautifully crafted arrangements and sensitive accompaniment reveal a major-league talent. Most delightful is the way they recast familiar tunes by uncovering obscure verses. On Sammy Fain and Francis Paul Webster’s Academy Award–winning “Secret Love,” the verse, normally performed in a reserved rubato style, in this case has a swinging intensity that sets up a tale of romantic discovery, with Anthony perfectly evoking pulse-quickening amorous excitement as he accelerates into the line “once I had a secret love.” On Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg’s “April in Paris” they create the opposite effect, using the verse to deepen the song’s deliciously brooding mood of melancholy.
Not that Anthony needs a verse to make a song his own. He swings briskly through “The Song Is Ended,” a tune usually taken at a deliberate tempo. Most arresting is his ballad interpretation of “They Can’t Take That Away,” which he transforms into a dangerous, almost-obsessive noir-tinged journey.
The unfamiliar verses add a jolt of drama in another way as Norian contributes three original pieces that blend imperceptibly into the program. At first it’s not clear whether a song that sounds like a lost outtake from a 1940s Sinatra session for Columbia, like the lustrous ballad “Your Dreams Are on Their Way,” is a standard with an obscure verse or a new tune that captures the era’s sparkling wit and melodic inventiveness. For Anthony, Norian’s songs provide a bridge to the contemporary material that he’s been exploring though has yet to document.
Much like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, popular artists who were inextricably linked to jazz while not belonging wholly to the scene, Anthony has honed an approach based upon jazz’s rhythmic fluidity but that doesn’t depart from the essential melodies. He’s not a scat singer who uses songs as launching pads for extended improvisation. Rather, he improvises around the edges, extending a syllable to emphasize a phrase, or pausing to underline a feeling. Male jazz singers are already an endangered species, but Anthony exists in a rarefied realm between musical factions that eye each other warily.
Born Bryan Anthony Montemarano in Santa Rosa, California, on August 28, 1977, Anthony grew up outside Houston, Texas, where he sang in church choir and grade school vocal ensembles. In high school he got involved in musical theater, but experienced an epiphany when a friend gave him a copy of Sinatra’s greatest hits from his Reprise years. While seeking out more Sinatra recordings, he got turned on to the jazz vocal pantheon, from Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, and Chet Baker to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae. In 1995 he enrolled at Manhattan School of Music to study classical voice, then went on to earn a master’s at NYU in jazz and studio music.
Anthony hadn’t gotten far in his academic career before he landed his first major gig in 1997 when the Glenn Miller Orchestra hired him for a tour. He ended up taking a leave of absence from school that allowed him to keep his scholarship, and spent a year on the road crooning some of the best-loved standards in the American Songbook, including “At Last” and “The Nearness of You.”
As his reputation spread, Anthony became a first-call big band vocalist. He sang with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra under the direction of trombone legend Buddy Morrow, who shared stories of going out on the road with Dorsey in 1938. Anthony released his first album in 2000, “Look at Me Now,” an impressive session he expanded and re-released in 2006 as “Songs for Dreamers.” In between, the Nelson Riddle Orchestra came calling, a plum gig that offered Anthony the best showcase yet, with its treasure trove of arrangements written for Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, and Dean Martin. He continues to work with the Riddle Orchestra, where his gift for putting his own stamp on classics prevails.
Listening to A Night Like This, there’s no mistaking Anthony for anyone else. He’s clearly imbibed the jazz/pop vocal tradition, and he’s succeeded in his mission to find himself in the music. Whether backed by a brass-laden big band or an intimate piano trio, Anthony knows that like America itself the American Songbook thrives when it’s constantly being reinvented.