In the early days of his career in 1982, jazz pianist John di Martino was a member of the house trio accompanying such internationally famous vocalists as Billy Daniels and Keely Smith at Steve’s Lounge and Elaine’s Lounge, two of the show rooms at Atlantic City’s Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. He also played electric keyboards with Billy Eckstine, filling in orchestral string parts. “Eckstine was a sweetheart,” Di Martino remembers, “and he and Bobby Tucker, his pianist for many years, took a shine to me and became my mentors. It was fascinating to hear them spin yarns about Billie Holiday and all the great musicians they worked with like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. One night Mr. B. sat in on my late-night trio set and, after I’d backed him on ‘Lush Life’ and ‘Here’s That Rainy Day,’ he looked over at me and joked, ‘Not bad for an Italian.’ I learned a lot working with him. And with Billy Daniels, I learned a lot of tunes playing for him. The first time I did the gig I spent a whole week listening to his sets and writing down the tunes and then I would go back and learn them. Working with Keely, when one of her West Coast pianists like Johnny Veith couldn’t make it, she wouldn’t do one of her more hip sets, she’d do something more like when she’d worked with Louis Prima, lots of shuffles and ‘Just a Gigolo.’”
Early on, the Philadelphia native studied with the reclusive pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano, a revered mentor to bebop and self-proclaimed “cool” jazzmen of the 1940’s and 50’s and a deep influence on prominent jazz saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, among many others. “Tristano’s main thing,” says Di Martino, “was that he patterned himself after Charlie Parker, who had first patterned himself after Lester Young, and he taught you to listen to these famous solos, then vocalize the solo with the recording, then do it all by yourself. It really made you think.”
Today Di Martino is 58 and, though based in New York City since 1988—when he appeared with jazz vocalese master Jon Hendricks at Carnegie Hall—has traveled widely abroad to France, Holland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, India, and elsewhere, including regular biannual tours of Japan with Australian bassist and vocalist Nicki Parrott, with whom he has recorded more than 15 albums. He has worked and recorded with more than 100 vocalists; insiders consider him one of the most sensitive and inventive accompanists in the business. Introduced to Freddy Cole—Nat “King” Cole’s youngest brother—by Billy Eckstine in Atlantic City in the 1980’s, he has now played on the 86-year-old singer’s last ten albums. These include the colorful tribute Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B., a 2010 release and Grammy nominee featuring such signature ballad highlights of Eckstine’s career as “Cottage For Sale,” “Tender is the Night,” and “I Apologize”—along with the humorously naughty blues “Jelly Jelly,” which Eckstine first recorded with The Earl Hines Orchestra in 1940 and which Hines, reminiscing in 1976, called “one of our biggest hits.” Di Martino has backed Janis Siegel, a founding member in 1972 of The Manhattan Transfer, the prizewinning vocal ensemble known for inspired and impeccably arranged renditions of bebop, swing, pop, and jazz-rock tunes. Around New York he has accompanied such younger vocalists as Sacha Boutros, Alexis Cole, and Deanna Kirk at the Kitano Hotel (Kirk in the 1990’s had her own eponymous club at First Avenue and 7th Street in the East Village), Myriam Phiro at Iridium, and other classy New York-based jazz vocalists as well as more cabaret-oriented artists like Barbara Fasano and Mary Foster Conklin at the Metropolitan Room, the Duplex, and Danny’s Skylight Room, yet he’s also worked with today’s preeminent big-toned tenor saxophonist Houston Person, at the Jazz Standard.
Typical of master accompanists, Di Martino is very thoughtful about the art of backing vocalists. “With a horn-player, you’re thinking about rhythm and about not crowding them. With a singer, you have to remember that the lyric is sacred, it informs all your musical choices, so an accompanist has to know the lyrics to all the songs. And introductions—the intros are very important to set the mood and the vibe. You’re giving the singer a launching-point, the intro has to bring them in. Hank Jones was a great intro player, but not everyone can do it. You need a sense of the focal point, a sense of clarity. You have to listen, to realize that singers want to be led. I try to breathe with them, to keep a balance between the lines and the harmony. And then all singers are different, so you adjust to each one. Janis Siegel and I always embark on a musical journey together. She’ll kid me, ‘Where are you taking me tonight? Wherever you want to go, let’s go.’ With Freddy Cole, his phrasing is very conversational, like he’s speaking; there aren’t many sustained tones. Myriam Phiro likes to stick to more traditional arrangements, so you want to make sure she’s comfortable. And Nicki Parrott and I have always connected musically—I introduced her to the Venus record label and her first CD for them, Moon River, sold 16,000 copies. But I don’t work well with people who are control freaks.”
Critic Will Friedwald has offered the droll comment that “cabaret is roughly half-jazz, half-musical theater, and half-pop,” and explains that cabaret is not so much about the individual songs but rather about context and narrative and the connecting historical patter that help to create a “show.” Di Martino, as a jazz pianist sometimes working in a cabaret setting, feels that “cabaret singers put the lyric first, they understand that in these surroundings singing is acting, and the melody is color. But the really great singers, like Mark Murphy, can do both.”
Billie Holiday possessed a singular talent for creating a feeling of intimate rapport with her audience, and Di Martino names Tony Bennett, Janis Siegel, and the late Sylvia Syms as others who possess this gift. “The great singers, like Bennett, can be singing to 1,000 people and make everyone feel like they’re singing just to each one of them. I remember seeing him at the Apollo Theater sitting high up close to the ceiling, and I felt like he was singing only to me.”
All jazz musicians have their favorites among recordings on which they’ve performed, and, for someone as busy as Di Martino, there are many. He likes Janis Siegel’s 2013 Night Songs, a collection of late-night love songs that includes the 1932 Rodgers and Hart movie tune “Lover,” Billy Strayhorn’s poignant composition “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” and “Midnight Sun,” the moody melody cowritten by bandleader Lionel Hampton and arranger Sonny Burke in 1947, to which Johnny Mercer added lyrics in 1954. He likes Deanna Kirk’s 2012 Lost in Languid Love Songs, with her renditions of “These Foolish Things,” Hoagy Carmichael’s much-admired “Skylark”—with Johnny Mercer’s charming lyrics—and “I Want to Be Loved.” The last was a 1947 hit by the tragic jazz and rhythm-and-blues vocalist Savannah Churchill, who had already sung with first-rate jazzmen Benny Carter and Red Norvo before, in 1956, she was badly injured during a performance when a drunken fan fell on her from the balcony at a Brooklyn night club, and rarely performed after that until her death at age 53 in 1974.
Di Martino is fond of several albums he’s done with Freddy Cole, including the 2005 This Love of Mine, which spotlights two standout saxophonists, Eric Alexander and the late David “Fathead” Newman, and features such wonderful oldies as “That Old Feeling,” “Out in the Cold Again,” and “The Continental,” largely forgotten today but a feature for Ginger Rogers in the 1934 movie Funny Face and the first song ever to win an Academy Award for best original song. The pianist was pleased to back the excellent but undeservedly underrated Gloria Lynne on her final recording, From My Heart to Yours, in 2007. And he is enthusiastic about his work with Cuban vocalist Isaac Delgado—sometimes called “the Frank Sinatra of Salsa”—on the singer’s 2010 release, L-O-V-E, an album of Spanish tunes originally sung by Nat “King” Cole that includes the title tune, “Perfidia,” and “Green Eyes.”
Talking about repertoire, Di Martino notes that there are certain songs that are “gender” numbers—“you know, ‘My Man’ and ‘I Got Lost in His Arms’ and ‘The Man I Love’ are pretty much girls’ tunes, although I’ve been working with the cabaret singer David Vernon, who performs ‘My Man’ and pulls it off very well. I remember a funny story that Billy Eckstine and Bobby Tucker told me—a male singer, not very bright, changed only one word and sang, ‘Someday she’ll come along, the girl I love, and she’ll be big and strong . . . ’”
“I think of every song as a scene from a movie, and the pianist must be as immersed in the character of the scene as the singer. And the accompanist must match the energy of the singer—if the pianist doesn’t match the character and the energy of the singer then something is missing from the total effect of the performance. I think of the accompaniment as an environment for the singer and the melody. And when you accompany you are a spontaneous arranger.”