Jazz review: Steve Tyrell in Newport Beach Summer Concert Series

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Steve Tyrell has one of the most gratifying Cinderella stories in present-day popular music. A recording industry veteran (in promotion and production), he sang privately for years. Then, a lone song placed in the 1991 film ‘Father of the Bride’ garnered enough interest that he was given three more on the sequel. Subsequent interest from Atlantic Records resulted in a well-received debut.

Nine albums later, Tyrell is one of the main contemporary purveyors of standards on the pop landscape. When Bill Clinton dances with his daughter, Chelsea, at her wedding to your recording of “The Way You Look Tonight,” you know you’re doing something right.

Tyrell headlined Friday night at the Hyatt Regency’s Infiniti Summer Concert Series in Newport Beach. In the gently sloping outdoor bowl with the darkened sky for a cover, the setting could hardly have been more conducive to the season and to romance. The sound was excellent; Tyrell and the band had presence throughout the area (the outdoors can devour sound) without being overly loud.

His assets were on full display, and though Tyrell doesn’t have lots of formal musical training, they’re not to be sneezed at. His voice, though small of range, has an endearing quality, and he hits the notes. His sound is warm, with an edge of fine-ground gravel. But Tyrell’s chief strengths are timing and phrasing that lags just a tad behind the beat. The bulk of his songs swing gently but firmly. The audience, mostly couples from their 20s to the 80s, was in his thrall as soon as Tyrell took the stage. At just shy of the Hyatt’s 1,100 capacity, he had a willing throng at his disposal. An engaging knack of imparting the stories behind the songs — and how his own history plays into them — marks Tyrell as a first-class salesman between numbers.


His fans came to hear songs of love from an era when romance had a place in popular culture, deftly rendered by songwriters such as Ellington, Rodgers & Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Arlen & Mercer, and Vernon Duke & Ira Gershwin. But Tyrell came to the Great American Songbook through his love of the great rhythm and blues singers. So Little Willie John’s “Talk to Me,” “At Last” by Etta James, and the Ray Charles version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” harmoniously rubbed shoulders with the gold-standard tunesmiths and their songs. Tyrell’s gentle Texas accent is invaluable on that material.

Musical director Jon Allen has expertly arranged Tyrell’s material in clever ways. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” was given a light second-line beat, where drummer Kevin Denard peppers his drum kit accordingly. On the slow ballads, Allen’s keyboard synthesizer brushes in strings or horn approximations discreetly but effectively.

Tyrell is not shy about acknowledging his band, and with good reason: He has a crack and versatile septet. Pianist Quinn Johnson opened Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” with a fine chorus of Waller piano interpolation. Scotty Barnhart’s cup-mute trumpet nodded in the direction of Ellingtonian Cootie Williams on “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and Louis Armstrong on “Moonlight.” Guitarist Steve Cotter added tang and reedman Jeff Driskill a warm flute voice to “Talk to Me.” Bassist Lyman Medeiros took a deep-toned pizzicato break on “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Not to be outdone, Tyrell held a final note for two measures on a couple of tunes.

As it happened, it wasn’t until a late-set clutch of songs by his musical mentors — Burt Bacharach and Hal David — that Tyrell’s voice began to sound monochromatic. The tunes were introduced to the public consciousness by singers with more harmonic dimension than he can conjure. Still, by the time Tyrell got to “Always Something There to Remind Me,” the concert almost became a sing-along. His informal encore of “Georgia” gave license to all the would-be singers in the audience to joyfully cut loose and clap on the wrong beats.

Tyrell has clearly tapped into a powerful hunger for standard material and a demographic that can scarcely get enough of him. He sings those songs with love and respect — to the composers and to his audience.

The Hyatt Regency’s Infiniti Summer Concert Series continues through the end of September.

— Kirk Silsbee