I am a gleeken, my nomenclature for Glee fan, so when I heard Rachel introduce “New York State of Mind” as a song “written by Billy Joel and made popular by Barbara Streisand,” I became curious. Look, I love Babs. She went to school just two blocks from where I live, along with fellow Yiddish Flatbusher Neil Diamond–what a Glee Club they must have had! But when I think of this anthem, it is Chicago boy Mel Tormé that comes to mind.
In 2016, Time Out New York published the 100 Best NYC songs. At the top, not surprisingly, Jay Z & Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind” and Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Joel’s song comes in at 19. Searching youtube for “New York State of Mind,” after Billy Joel’s original recording comes Carter/Keys collab and Nas classic “NY State of Mind.” Below this, covers of the original 1976 State of Mind abound. There are a surprising number of soulful versions, including Alicia Keys tribute to her tribute. But scrolling page after page, where is Tormé?
Props to Billy Joel for writing such a great song, and it is fun viewing all the famous folks teaming up with him, but it was Mel’s version “Live at Marty’s New York City” that called me to cross coasts from L.A. His nickname, The Velvet Fog, suggests smooth jazz, but, and this is what distinguishes his cover from the rest, his voice has an edge–not in tone, but in rhythm. The bop of the drum, his first instrument, rolls through his vocal. In the version below, he is helped by the drums of Mel Lewis (another great Jewish Jazzer). The 57 year old gives credit to Billy, then proceeds to scat this canticle to pieces.