Only the most intrepid Mel Tormé fans have collected his early recordings, which were made from the mid-'40s to the early '50s for a handful of independent labels (Musicraft, Decca, Capitol) and had never been definitively collected before. In yet another feat of anthologizing, the enthusiasts at Proper made history by compiling 95 Tormé performances on a four-disc box set, Jazz and Velvet
. Boasting a budget price and featuring better-than-budget sound and notes, the set made it affordable and easy for any level of Mel Tormé fan to own the lion's share of material from a neglected period in his career. Tormé in the '40s was a boy wonder, a figure capable of bewitching the bobby-soxers with his mellifluous high baritone, but also able to mesmerize their older, college-age brothers who studied charts closely and never trucked with crooners. His solo appearances and recordings of the day paved the way for his later career and provided his biggest hits (paced by the only chart-topper of his career, 1949's "Careless Hands"). Nevertheless, Tormé spent much more time in the studio with the Mel-Tones, his harmonically advanced and meticulously arranged vocal group. All of the Mel-Tones recordings are present, with the high spot appearing midway through the first disc -- their 1946 Artie Shaw Orchestra
feature "What Is This Thing Called Love?," a boisterous and bouncy charge through one of the most maudlin of torch songs. Disc two is devoted to transcriptions, either small-group features for Tormé alone or orchestra-led numbers with the Mel-Tones. Much of the third disc focuses on songs recorded with the Mel-Tones for a 1948 program which was set at a small college, accounting for original Tormé pleasantries like "Dear Old Fairmont," "Pythagoras You Stagger Us," and "It's Dark on Observatory Hill" (none of them as tepid as their titles indicate). By early 1949, Mel Tormé had become a solo feature for good, acting on the prescient advice of a manager. Although he continued working with the Mel-Tones, most of the hits were his alone, except for a few with fellow Capitol act Peggy Lee. Together they scored a hit with "The Old Master Painter," and Lee contributed to Tormé's ambitious California Suite
by playing the Easterner in "Got the Gate on the Golden Gate." Jazz and Velvet
features a wealth of Tormé material from an era when he had varying control over his recordings, but none of them would cause the older, wiser artist to feel shamed by his early years.