A latter-day Sinatra makes an album full of the best of everything -- catchy originals, beloved standards, famous performers, and fellow alumni artists.
by Jennifer B. Brown
While the image is slicked up and hipper, the classic sound -- a rich smooth voice and complementary musical accompaniment -- of Tony DeSare '98 and his bandmates is more than a little reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. It's not necessarily a comparison the contemporary crooner and his pals disavow.
The Tony DeSare Trio -- Mike Lee '00 on bass, Brian Czach '98 on drums, and Tony on piano and vocals -- count Sinatra among their influences, along with other piano-based composers from Count Basie to Billy Joel. They've played the dives and jazz lounges of New York and casinos such as the Sands in Atlantic City, and now they've collaborated on Tony's debut album, Want You.
Brian, Tony, and Mark
The three talk much like they perform, as if it might be difficult for them to sit near one another and not collaborate. At times they finish each other's thoughts. "Oh," says Mike, "should we mention . . .?" And Tony or Brian launches into a story.
"I won the battle of the bands my freshman year at Ithaca," says Tony, "playing and singing [jazz and classic] standards against two rock bands." Tony, who grew up playing the violin because "it's what was around," had at that point been playing piano for six years and singing for just two. But he received such a tremendous response that he was asked to perform regularly at student and administration functions.
In addition to solo gigs, he played with the Ithaca College Jazz Ensemble, as did Brian. During one of those performances Mike was in the audience. "I just remember thinking, 'I have to do that. I want to do that,' " recalls Mike. An accomplished pianist, he had started playing at age three and switched to bass as a junior in high school. "The funny thing is," he says, "I didn't really get jazz at first. I didn't feel it. Then in college I got addicted. I grew as a musician."
"He has perfect pitch," Brian points out. Mike smiles. "I do," he says, pauses briefly, and then says, "I feel like if we're talking about Ithaca we should say something about . . ."
"Steve Brown," Brian interjects.
Tony jumps in: "He's a jazz professor. He essentially taught us to arrange."
"He's one of those professors who really challenge you and ask, 'Is that all you can do?' " Mike adds.
That challenge to experiment and expand is a regular part of the give-and-take creative relationship Mike and Tony now share as songwriters. Generally the two will work in their separate homes and play music to each other over the phone. Tony says, "It pretty much works like this: I write something and call Mike. He says, 'No. That's no good.' Then he takes it and works with it and calls me back." They go back and forth on the phone for a while, each working on his own piano, until they feel they have something. Only then do they sit down in person.
Sometimes things happen differently, as in June 2003, when they were in Atlantic City for a weeklong gig. "We were performing at Foxwood's, the casino, when I got the call from Brian," says Tony. He's referring to Brian Herzlinger '97, who was working on his documentary My Date with Drew (ICQ 2005/2) with Jon Gunn '95 and Brett Winn '95. Herzlinger was in a jam: he was unable to obtain the rights to the song they wanted, and he had to wrap the film. Could Tony help them out and write a title song real quick?
"We had a week," remembers Tony. "But there wasn't a whole lot else to do there. We don't gamble."
"And there's no entertainment," says Brian.
"Well, there was," Mike corrects him. "But we were it."
They laugh, and Tony continues. "Mike came in with his keyboard, and we just sat down and did it. It took only a few hours. Twenty days for the finished product."
The song, "(I'd Have It All) If I Had Drew," strongly resembles, in both style and tone, the Sinatra hit "If I Had You." "It's the only time," says Mike, "that we've been successful at writing in the same room." That song and there are other originals on album "Another Chance for My Heart" and "Marry Me" which Tony wrote solo..Not sure how you want to handle it, but with song titles so long, I thought it would get a bit much so I opted for other][[?????]] other originals on the new album -- including "Want You," "How I Will Say I Love You," and "Movin' On" -- are the ones they are most proud of, but it was their rendition of Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse's "Two for the Road" that got the interest of record labels. And, no doubt, the group's ability to sound far bigger than a trio.
"We really do try to sound like a big band," says Tony. "Brian's the key to that," Mike points out. "He makes the sound explode." Tony nods in agreement and explains that while he and Mike do the writing and composing, it's Brian who often makes all the pieces fit.
For the album, the trio got a few big names to join them, including legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. "I met Bucky through Joe Piscopo," Tony says and then smiles, knowing it sounds a bit strange. "I met Joe at Jilly's, a jazz club in the city. He heard me play and asked me to play piano for his Frank Sinatra impersonation at a Great Night in Harlem at the Apollo," a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America. "There were so many amazing people there that night: George Benson, Joe Lovano, Clark Terry, Bucky. It was a fundraiser for jazz legends who were exploited by record labels. Here are these guys who are just amazing, but they can't even pay their bills. They got nothing from the record companies." During that event Tony had the opportunity to play with Pizzarelli on stage. Later, when he needed a guitarist (and not just any guitarist), he got in touch with Pizzarelli and asked him to play on the album.
"He really fills out the sound," Tony says. "It was truly a loving gift for him to play. I'm very thankful."
Tony is thankful for many things these days, and he's forthcoming with his gratitude. "What's been great is that I surround myself with people I like, who are nice to be around. They're a great team -- family. And to be able to make money playing what we love is truly a gift."
At times that gift has been hard-earned. "We've paid our dues," Tony points out. "When we started we had no connections; we just went out to play, mostly in smoky bars and jazz clubs. The primary goal was to get a record deal."
With that goal accomplished, the three enjoying the acclaim that has followed the album release in May. They toured all summer -- "in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Palm Beach . . . and it has been a blast," says Tony. "It took me all this time to get to this level, where we're doing radio interviews, being on CBS's Early Show. This was always our plan, and it's nice to see a plan come together!"
Telarc, the record label that produced the debut album, has signed a deal for at least one more album in the next year, with the option for four more after that. The group are just formulating ideas for the follow-up album, which is likely to be recorded in the spring. The debut album has recently been released worldwide, and the Tony DeSare Trio will be touring Asia and Europe in the next several months. "I've been getting e-mails from New Zealand, Tokyo, France, London," says Tony. "It's mind-boggling."
All in all, it's been a very good year. But one can't help thinking that the best is yet to come.Photo, top: Bill Westmoreland