Imitation can be a creative cul-de-sac for musicians, a dead end in the essential search for a personal sound. But it can also unlock new avenues, enabling a performer to expand and refine his or her own vision.
For the suave baritone vocalist Jonathan Poretz, the opportunity to step into the larger-than-life shoes of Frank Sinatra has proved liberating rather than confining. Long an admirer of pioneering jazz singer Mel Torme, Poretz has spent much of the past 18 months starring in various productions of "The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean," a role he recently reprised at the Marines Memorial Theatre in a show rechristened "The Rat Pack Is Back."
The singer has discovered that becoming a student of Sinatra's technique has deepened his own approach, which was already built upon a jaunty sense of swing.
"I never tried to sing like Frank before, and then I had to emulate his phrasing and breath control," Poretz said from his home in San Rafael. "I went to Sinatra school for a year and a half, and I feel I'm a much more effortless singer."
Poretz celebrates the release of his debut album "A Lot of Livin' to Do" (Pacific Coast Jazz) tonight at Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach, where he's joined by the same top-shelf cast that accompanies him on the CD, including pianist/arranger Lee Bloom, bassist Jeff Neighbor, ace drummer Vince Lateano and reed master Noel Jewkes.
Born and raised in Bayside, Queens, Poretz gravitated toward music as a child. By 16, he was performing in a wedding band stocked with underemployed jazz greats such as trumpeters Charlie Shavers and Snooky Young and guitarists Barney Kessel, Chuck Wayne and Joe Puma.
While he was singing pop tunes, he was listening to the jazz veterans and soaking up the music's harmonic language and rhythmic pulse. "Hearing those changes and improvisations, getting swing inside my system, that was an education," Poretz said.
But as he became an adult, he moved away from music. By the time Poretz relocated to the Bay Area in 1995, his passion for performing had lain dormant for two decades. Two life-changing events, the birth of his daughter and death of his mother, jolted him into a creative crisis.
"I realized that I'm wasting my life not doing what I have a passion for," Poretz said.
At first he channeled his energy into musical theater, but before long he realized that singing was his true love. He started sitting in where he could and working local gigs around Marin County. He scored one breakthrough when drummer Harold Jones, a master who put in long stints with Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, encouraged him to bring in charts to perform with his big band (Jones also plays on four tracks of "A Lot of Livin' to Do").
Looking to break into the San Francisco scene, he approached pianist Lee Bloom one night at Jazz Club Nouveau, a short-lived jazz spot near Fisherman's Wharf. Impressed by Bloom's touch and lyricism, Poretz hired him for a gig, and once they started working together, Bloom quickly came to appreciate the singer's sense of purpose. The pianist has included him regularly on his gigs at the Orinda House, and they perform there next on Feb. 15.
"I started to realize he's a serious guy," Bloom said. "He had a maturity and commitment that I picked up right away. He's somebody who has a genuine love of theater. He knows all the shows, and that passion informs his performance. He's got a real natural sense of rhythm in his phrasing, a real feel for bebop syncopation."
In developing arrangements for the album, Bloom used Fred Astaire's classic 1952 Verve album "Steppin' Out" as a model, drawing on its lithe, uncluttered feel (in a coincidence, the Astaire session features trumpeter Shavers and guitarist Kessel, two of Poretz's associates from his teenage years as a wedding singer). While Poretz rarely ventures into unexpected territory in his repertoire, his taste in songs is impeccable.
Whether crooning the perfect Rodgers & Hart ballad "It Never Entered My Mind" or swinging ebulliently on the Harold Alren/Johnny Mercer chestnut "Come Rain or Come Shine," Poretz projects a forthright masculinity, vulnerable but virile, that often seems to have disappeared with the lost art of male jazz singing (Kurt Elling is the only male vocalist under 40 I can think of with a similar swagger).
While Poretz made sure to avoid slipping into his Sinatra persona for the recording session, he does share Ol' Blue Eyes' appreciation of jazz accompanists.
"At Pearl's, I want to leave room for lots of improvisation," Poretz said. "I want the guys to have fun. I mean, Noel Jewkes is an amazing player. He's so lyrical, he's really a singer, too."