One of the finest jazz recordings released during 2003 also happens to be the most mysterious -- at first glance.
Hammond B-3 organ player Joey DeFrancesco's newest CD on the Concord Jazz label is called "Falling in Love Again." It features the top young organist's stellar band on 11 standards joined by a fine singer in the Jimmy Scott tradition, a mystery man who on record and on stage goes by the name "Joe Doggs."
While fueling some speculation and even disbelief at first, the true identity of the singer rapidly became the worst-kept secret in jazz.
It is none other than actor Joe Pesci. Not that DeFrancesco, Pesci or even Concord Records executives or Pesci's agent will admit it for the record -- or talk about it.
Does that surprise you or amuse you? -- as Pesci's "Goodfellas" tough guy character might ask.
Mum's the word these days, and it has been from day one -- other than one Pesci-as-Doggs interview published two months ago in the New York Observer.
The fact that Pesci sticks to his musical persona is a credit to the project, when all is said and done. But there undoubtedly were some interesting choices and issues confronting all involved.
- Absent a star like Diana Krall or a surprising rookie singer like Norah Jones, rare is the jazz album on any sort that will sell more than 30,000 copies. Frequently, those CD totals are far less.
- Does an independent label like Concord, which escaped bankruptcy several years ago, continue to plod along with those average sales figures, or should it try to capitalize on the Pesci name to grab the brass ring in CD sales?
- Can a Joe Pesci be taken seriously as a singer given his character actor background?
Pesci, 60, has carved a niche in film with his unforgettable characters --the Brooklyn lawyer Vincent LaGuardia Gambini in "My Cousin Vinny," a mob wiseguy in "Goodfellas" and a sidekick in the "Lethal Weapon" flicks.
But many fans and listeners may not realize that the Newark, N.J., native's interest in music as a career predates his screen notoriety. During the 1960s, Pesce was a lounge singer and guitarist in and around Philadelphia, New York and Atlantic City. He recorded an album during that phase under the name Joe Ritchie that was titled "Little Joe Sure Can Sing." And in 1998, Columbia released Pesci's "Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just For You" on the heels of the "Vinnny" film.
Back in the 1950s, as a teenager growing up in Newark's Italian North Ward, Pesci wanted to sing like jazz legend Jimmy Scott and spent considerable time following him around during Scott's Newark phase.
"He'd listen to me and encourage me," Pesci said in Scott's fascinating 2002 biography, "Faith in Time," by David Ritz. "Some days he'd disappear for days at a time, but when I caught up with him ... he'd smile and welcome me into his world. ... We'd sing together nonstop for hours, sometimes all night. ... He became my guru. I became his shadow."
There is more than a hint of Scott in the vocals of Joe Doggs -- or Pesci if you prefer. At first listen, even to more than casual fans of the mentor, the voice on "Falling in Love Again" sounds like Scott, or perhaps a younger Scott, right down to the timing and nuanced phrasing. But then you realize it is someone influenced by him, not trying to mimic his singular heartbreaking style.
"I've known and loved Joe (Doggs) as a performer and friend since I was a kid, and I've wanted to do a project with him for a long time," DeFrancesco wrote in the CD notes. "A lot of singers want their band to play quiet, but I've always liked the fact that he sees his voice as an instrument and wants the band to groove."
Pesci performed two gigs with DeFrancesco's quartet at Vincent's in West Chester, Pa., in July and did a week with the band at New York's Blue Note jazz club in mid-September.
In the New York Observer interview with Bill Tonelli, Doggs noted that at his debut gig at Vincent's, some people in the crowded room detracted from evening by yelling some of Pesci's best-known movie lines. He wants to appeal to jazz fans who are there for the music of the moment, not movie or pop culture fans who show up to gawk at a movie star.
"All that does is make it hard for me to do this, because then the wrong people will show up," he told the newspaper. "If you look at all the things they write about actors who try and sing, all they (critics) do is (expletive) kill them. I am not a (expletive) circus and I don't want to be part of one."
While not having made a film in five years, he was in an enviable position.
There was no need to capitalize on the Joe Pesci name. He was able to record this fine music on his own terms, and let it stand or fall on its own merits.
And stand it does.