Some artists might consider a musical theater role portraying a legend like Frank Sinatra to be A potential career killer because of the comparisons to Ol’ Blue Eyes, and then the prospect of not being able to get out from under that shadow and assert your own individuality as a singer. That, however, is not the situation with Jonathan Poretz, a jazz vocalist hailing from the San Francisco area who has spent almost two years depicting Sinatra in the production of Dick Feeney and Sandy Hackett’s Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean (the Rat Pack). As my fingers were busy, pounding out this article on my keyboard, Poretz was just returning from the Tribute’s four-night stint in Springfield, Massachusetts. San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boston and Memphis are other favorite hosts for the production.
In January of this year, Poretz released his debut album A Lot of Livin’ to Do and continues to demonstrate both on and off the stage, the self-assuredness that all good performers have. While Poretz’s vocals have a swagger similar to Bobby Darin and are full of energy, his offstage demeanor is more relaxed as he exudes a quiet confidence that seems to say, ‘I am living in the moment.’
The affable singer took time recently to discuss his CD comprised of vintage, mostly romantic tunes and touring as a cast member in the Feeney/Hackett production.
Concerning his characterization by one reviewer as being jaunty, Poretz says, "I am trying to be me as much as I can and that being said of the people that I listen to, clearly Sinatra was a master of the lyric and a master of rhythm. I am a huge fan of Mel Tormé and I appreciate Bobby Darin because of his swagger. Those guys are probably the foundation (of his style) and you can throw in a little Tony Bennett."
Most of all, however, Poretz brings his own life experiences, emotions and affinity for swinging standards to the songs he sings. Some of the vibrant energy that infuses the songs comes from his earlier days in music when he was part of a pop rock band in New York City, although he laughingly admits, "It is nothing that I would ever want released." He also draws upon his experience in theater even prior to his days in the Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean (the Rat Pack).
"What resonated more for me (back in the day) was jazz and the standards. I love standards and most of them came out of Broadway shows. People forget when they listen to lyrics that they were written for a purpose and they tell a story and advance the story. I am keen to that," he says before adding, "I am one with the rhythm and I am one with the music. I think what comes out of that is me as opposed to trying to be something."
"People have said that I have a very natural old style of swing. (There are some) young people coming up today who try to sing swing jazz but it is not organic," says Poretz. He makes the point that what makes it easier for him to sing this style of music is he has taken time to understand the music, the people who wrote it and the singers who performed the tunes.
Despite his brief foray into the world of pop rock, Poretz has deep roots in the world of jazz that originate within his teenage years, when he began singing with bands in his hometown of New York City. "I was very fortunate because the guys in those bands were pretty heavy hitters. I was surrounded by some fine players and I had to listen intimately to the music. It is different from being in the audience. When you are there in the mix, you get to absorb a lot of music. When I think about it, a lot of my jazz foundation came from being in that mix. So when I began singing jazz, it was very natural to me. I think if anything, my natural sense of rhythm has given me a good sensibility," says Poretz recalling his days performing with such luminaries as Charlie Shavers, Chuck Wayne and Joe Puma.
Those same sensibilities no doubt came into play when it came time for Poretz to choose the musicians that would play on A Lot of Livin’ to Do. Drummer Harold Jones was a no brainer because Poretz frequently sings with the Harold Jones Boss Men big band. Jones also is a highly respected artist who performed with Count Basie, Sara Vaughan and in recent years with Tony Bennett. Jones’ beats can be heard on four of the tracks, "A Lot of Livin’ to Do," "My Time of Day/I’ve Never Been In Love Before," "On the Street Where You Live" and "Just One of Those Things."
"Harold sees himself as a session man who is supporting the singer, which is interesting because if you hear some of the old Basie stuff that he did, he can take a solo like no one else. (he says emphatically) He is a great drummer! (he repeats the statement for effect) He is this metronome and his timing is impeccable. Harold just lays it down simply. All you need with him is a high-hat and you are going. He has the kind of drive that once that train moves, it goes and just goes. It doesn’t matter what tempo you set, Harold will make it swing and I have noticed that many, many times singing with his big band. He brings simplicity to the sound," says Poretz.
Unfortunately due to tour commitments with Tony Bennett, Jones was not available to record the entire album, however, it gave Poretz an opportunity to team up with another drummer friend Vince Lateano who often joins him for gigs. Concerning Lateano who Poretz refers to as a "wonderful accompaniment for a singer," he says, "He sets me up beautifully (while singing). Vince has been my (performance) mentor in many ways. All of the little things that I have learned over the years have been a result of Vince."
Noel Jewkes is another of the fine musicians appearing on this album and it seems as though there are few instruments that he has not mastered. Jewkes is equally excellent on the tenor sax, clarinet, flute and valve trombone. Jeff Neighbor and Pierre Josephs both appear as bassists, while pianist Lee Bloom also co-arranged the charts with Poretz.
"I first heard Lee at a club in San Francisco and was impressed by his lyrical sense. I introduced myself to him as a kid coming up and we hit it off immediately. Many of these arrangements evolved over time from performing them at gigs. I wanted to have some arrangements that were unique and not run of the mill (but at the same time) not complicated. I had a lot of the ideas conceptually and I was able to flesh them out working with Lee. When you add Noel Jewkes’ take on things, sketches of the arrangements literally came together in the studio. We would do one take and on the second take, most often we nailed it," Poretz says.
During the past two years as a result of touring with Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean (the Rat Pack), Poretz has expanded his vocal range. "I really had to go to Frank (Sinatra) school and listen more intently than I usually did to nail his phrasing. I think as a result, my singing is better partly from listening to him sing so much. I am a tenor, but Frank was a baritone so by doing his keys night after night, I have expanded my range considerably and it is a great bonus," says Poretz.
If you live in the Bay area, you may want to try to catch Jonathan Poretz at LJ’s Martini Club, Jazz@Shanhai 1930 or The Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay. He can also be heard singing with the Starduster Orchestra big band (http://www.stardusterorchestra.homestead.com/) and as the featured vocalist with the Joe Agro Sextet.