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A Stritch in Time: Billy Stritch at Arci's Place

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Some performers in "this business we call show" hang on, Norma Desmond-like, to outmoded self-images. But not Texas native Billy Stritch, crown prince of the new millennium's jazzsters. In fact, he's continued to morph publicly during the 17 years since he came to New York as one third of the fondly remembered jazz vocal trio Montgomery, Plant & Stritch. The young pianist/singer was also the group's musical mastermind, arranging all of its intricate harmonies.

MP&S moved quickly from such career-launching smaller venues as Don't Tell Mama to the Ballroom, the Algonquin and, finally, the Carlyle. By the time of their last gig together in 1990, they'd earned much critical acclaim and several group awards; Stritch had also won an individual Bistro Award as Outstanding Pianist/Accompanist.

"That breakup was really hard," he recalls. "After eight years, we were connected at the hip." Montgomery and Plant split back to Texas, but Stritch stayed in NYC and began playing piano two nights a week at Bobo's.

Billy Stritch, Gregg Gerson, Liza Minnelli, Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Jim Caruso and Darren Sussman
Enter Liza--yes, that Liza. (Is there any other?) Stritch's 1991 meeting with her changed the course of his life. "When I look back at the big transitions in my life," he says, "they all seem to come at 10-year intervals." After Minnelli discovered him at Bobo's, he immediately began working with her, and has arranged and produced for her ever since. Most recently, he co-produced her Grammy-nominated CD Gently and was arranger and co-producer for both her Broadway show Minnelli on Minnelli and its just-released CD, recorded live. He also put together the tour of Liza's show, which begins this month (in San Francisco) and ends in February 2001."

Stritch's own career has also burgeoned during the last ten years: He picked up a MAC award in the Singer/Instrumentalist category; played solo gigs at the late, lamented Eighty-Eights and Rainbow & Stars; and brought some of his favorite, Brazilian flavored jazz (from his "Waters of March" CD) to Joe's Pub. In the fall of '99, he notes, "I wanted to record an all jazz set. So we cut a live CD at the Jazz Standard, to be released this spring."

Though his jaunty jazz stylings have often been compared to those of Mel Tormé, Stritch feels that "Comparisons can be limiting; they're a tool for other people to put you in a box. But I certainly don't mind being compared to Mel. Actually, he hosted a 1988 JVC Carnegie Hall evening of vocal groups that MP&S did, and he was very supportive. Later, I met him again with Liza. I want to do a theatrical concert based on Tormé; I've been doing research and I don't think he's ever gotten his full due as a writer/arranger."

Stritch has also been working with Mark Bramble and Mark Waldrop on a musical titled Lily and Lily. "It's a farce set in Hollywood in 1939," he relates. "A fading movie queen switches places with her twin sister for a happy ending. We've got 18 original songs."

In recent years, Stritch has ditched the glasses he'd worn since he was 10 (thanks to laser surgery), and he now sports a trim, handsome goatee. To kick off the millennium, he has put together an evening of some of his favorite Songs From the Last Century. "I usually try to resist themes, because they're so restricting," he says. "But this was an easy go. I just picked a bunch of songs I already knew and then discovered they had a built-in theme, since they're songs from each decade of the last 100 years." First performed at the FireBird Café in January, the show--currently reprising through March 11 at Arci's Place--features some foot-stomping, honky-tonk piano playing (Hank Williams' "Your Cheating Heart") along with Stritch's famous 'liquid suede' vocals (Jobim's "Someone to Light Up My Life"). It has gained its star some of his best reviews ever, though certain critics still try to pigeonhole this musical maverick.

"Playing in cabaret started me straddling the fence, so to speak," he says in his Texas twang (easily detected in conversation, but rarely heard on stage). "I was always too 'jazz' for the cabaret rooms and too 'cabaret' for the jazz rooms. I know I'm a jazz singer, 'cause I sing around the notes. And I still love to sing harmony--although that's hard to do as a soloist! So I keep arranging harmony for others. I like to do it all: arranging, writing, singing, and producing. I plan to keep all doors open."

As Billy Stritch well knows, you never can tell who might walk through one of those doors.

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