Tickling the ebony and ivories
“I grew up with Sinatra,” says singer and pianist Steve Tyrell, thinking back on a Texas youth when he was known by his given name, Steve Bilao. “My family was Italian and that’s all I ever heard at home,” says Tyrell, “But I didn’t want to be Sinatra. I wanted to be Ben E. King. I wanted to be Otis Redding. I was influenced by all the great R&B of the sixties. I wanted to be black.”
It’s a bit ironic then, that, after decades of working on the production end of the music business, Tyrell, who released his first album at age 45, has found great success as a recording artist with collections of standards—among them his album Songs of Sinatra.
But as audiences at his previous sold out engagements at Feinstein’s at the Nikko have discovered, when Tyrell leaves the studio—and the lush orchestral arrangements he crafts for songs by the likes of the Gershwins, Sammy Kahn, Jules Styne, and Rodgers and Hart—he loosens up, shakes it out and lets a breeze in. “I’m performing versions of the same arrangements that are on my records, but they’re not as orchestrated,” he explains of his swinging, soul-inflected cabaret sets. “It’s freer, more open. Part of it comes down to economics: when you play with just a few guys, there’s more space to play in.”
Tyrell has the voice of a gruff-but-gracious barstool storyteller, with burred edges that catch an audience’s ears and keep them attuned to songs’ lyrics. At times, he sounds more akin to Dr. John than Michael Feinstein. (It makes perfect sense that Tyrell produced some of Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook recordings). “I was shocked when I was first asked to play at Feinstein’s in New York,” he says. “I’d have thought it more likely that I’d be booked at B.B. King’s.”