All it takes is a phrase or two from Tom Wopat's warm, engaging baritone to trigger the desire to hear more. And the more one listens, the better it gets -- from the way he finds the heart of a song’s story to his lyrical phrasing and his gently swinging, jazz-infused rhythms.
That’s a large handful of uniquely appealing qualities, and they’re all over the fourteen utterly captivating tunes on I’ve Got Your Number. Tom applies his far-ranging interpretive skills to discovering new, intriguing musical twists in such Great American Songbook classics as “The Good Life,” “The Folks Who Live On The Hill,” “Call Me,” “Born To Be Blue,” “I Won’t Dance” and, of course, the title track. As if that wasn’t enough, he also takes his listeners on adventurous new journeys through contemporary songs from the likes of Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby and James Taylor.
At first glance, that could be viewed as a surprisingly diverse program of material from a performer who may be best known for his starring role in the '80s hit television series The Dukes of Hazzard. But his versatility was there from the beginning, and on full display in a career reaching from his television work of the ‘70s and ‘80s to high visibility Broadway roles in 1999’s Annie Get Your Gun and 2008’s Catered Affair (he received Tony Award nominations for both), as well as Chicago, Forty-Second St., Sondheim on Sondheim and more.
And it hasn’t stopped there. Tom’s career is still very much in high gear, currently with a role in Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained, scheduled for release in December. His acting work in musicals also continues, with a major role in next year’s ABC Family film, Lovestruck – a movie musical with a magical twist -- in which he co-stars with Jane Seymour.
I’ve Got Your Number is his eighth album – a very different recording from his early efforts. And it’s probably understandable that his first recordings emerged in country music style with a spicy seasoning of rock.
But Tom insists upon keeping that phase of his musical career in context. “Remember,” he says, “at that time we were just coming off Urban Cowboy, so the country pop thing was almost like the MOR music of the early ‘80s. You could make a case that the Eagles were kind of country oriented…And if James Taylor had come along 15 years later, he probably would have been seen as a country artist.”
Given the breadth of his musical skills, Tom adapted easily, performing superbly on those early, country-tinged recordings, crafting some of his own songwriting along the way.
But his most appropriate musical orientation didn’t start to become clear to him until he made his first recordings of standards, with a jazz slant.
“It happened abruptly,” Tom recalls. “In 1999-2000, when I was doing the Broadway show Annie Get Your Gun, we did a cast album. And the people at Angel asked me if I wanted to make a jazz record. You know, like a Sinatra record. And of course I said yes. But it wasn’t until I actually started making the records of standards, adding pop tunes, giving them jazz treatments, that I realized it was exactly what I aspired to do musically.”
Those first two albums of standards – In the Still of the Night and Dissertation on the State of Bliss (a collection of Harold Arlen songs) – were brimful of melodic ballads. For Tom, they served as a bridge from country pop into the jazz-oriented sounds and rhythms that had always fascinated him. The next album, Consider It Swung, brought him even closer to his musical aspirations.
“I was trying to get out of the sort of introspective things that I had done for the two previous records,” explains Tom. “Even though they were the sort of songs that I seem to kind of have a knack for. But I like my audiences to have a good time when they hear me. And I think Consider it Swung was the first album that really reflected what we were doing in live shows. Mixing up pop tunes. Taking a Joni Mitchell tune and giving it a little more jazz treatment. Things like that.”
With I’ve Got Your Number, Tom’s musical expedition has traveled into even more colorful territory. Backed by a thirty-piece orchestra he fulfills his desire to focus on what he describes as the “orchestra/big band hybrid of the ‘60s and ‘70s.” “Like the Bobby Darin stuff,” he says. “Frank Sinatra did big band stuff then, too. Everybody did. And we really wanted to go for that -- in the standards we’ve done as well as in the contemporary tunes. We’ve evoked the spirit of the New York supper club era and the cool vibe of the Mad Men days, that’s really what we’re doing. The music swings hard and there’s a lot of really, really fine music.”
And a lot of really, really fine singing, too. Listen to the way he romps through the different rhythms of “I’ve Got Your Number” and “The Good Life” – typical of his easygoing interaction with the grooves of his orchestra/big band backing. And listen, as well to the way he transforms the singer/songwriter tunes – James Taylor’s “The Secret O’ Life,” Paul Simon’s “The Afterlife,” Judy Collins’ “Since You Asked,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River” -- into jazz-tinged renditions. And to the sense of jazz authenticity that informs both Tom’s singing and his interaction with the lush big band arrangements.
At a time when male vocal artists have been in fairly short supply, his singing is a welcome addition to the contemporary jazz scene.
“Performing these songs the way we do in I’ve Got Your Number is the most creative thing I do,” Tom concludes. “It’s extremely satisfying and fulfilling. And as long as it feels that way, I’m going to keep right on doing it.”
- Don Heckman
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