Since he burst onto the New York City club scene in the early 2000s, singer and pianist Tony DeSare has earned rave reviews as a standard-bearer for a new generation of young jazz musicians. As a singer he is equally at home performing songs of today and those from last century (he does a spot-on Sinatra).
But it’s his songwriting that may herald his inclusion among the icons of the Great American Songbook like Michael Feinstein. His original jazz ballads and boogie-woogies are instantly familiar and yet refreshingly novel.
On the verge of launching a new show at New York’s 54 Below supper club, the new father—and overall second-place winner of the 2013 USA Songwriting Competition—spoke with Making Music about connecting with audiences all over the world, why YouTube is his next frontier, and which of his songs is Sir Paul McCartney’s favorite.
How did you develop your musical style?
Growing up where I did [in a small Upstate New York town called Hudson Falls] and when I did [in the 1980s]—far away from any major metropolitan music center, and before the Internet—there wasn’t a lot of direct access to educational sources. I learned from recordings. We had a four-track cassette deck that my dad bought, and it was double-speed. So I would record the song I wanted to learn at the double-speed setting, and then play it back at the half-speed setting, and manually write down the notes to solos and left-hand stride rhythms. That’s how I learned jazz, by doing that all the time.
What are your practicing techniques? Do you have any tips for readers?
If I possibly can, I try to make practicing fun. These days, being on the road, being a dad, part of the challenge is being in front of the piano without a real agenda and trying to explore the instrument in ways I haven’t before. I work on what is interesting to me at the time. Sometimes I’ll be a songwriter, and I’ll just sit down and play. Pick a key, pick a mood—dark, light, energetic, introspective—and sometimes a song idea will come out of it.
Basically, it is doing it as much as you can—and, even better, doing it in front of people. As any performer knows, when you get in front of people, everything changes. It becomes about a musical exchange, a conversation, a constant exchange of energy.
As a singer, how do you read and connect with an audience?
It’s like going on a date with someone. It’s instinctual. We’re human. We’re social creatures, and we’re meant to know when somebody’s into us or not.
It’s very important for me to remember—and this is something I learned a long time ago—that when I’m performing, it’s not about me. It really isn’t. The audience is sitting there, giving me a shot because they love music, and it’s really about making sure that the music happens in the purest way possible. It’s not about impressing them, to make them think, ‘Look how great I am.’ It [needs to be] something honest: ‘I love this, and I hope you love this too.’ Whenever I approach it with that energy, it rarely ever fails.
One of your most popular videos is a mashup of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” How did you get the idea to combine a classic with a current pop tune?
It’s a product of my own musical curiosity. “Happy” was sweeping the country. It was everywhere. The last time a song like this was a hit, it was “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” I had this thought: Wouldn’t it be funny if I could make it all one song? It becomes like putting a puzzle together—finding commonalities in the harmonic structure. I did the musical arrangement of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but put it against the chord changes of “Happy.” And nowadays, because everything is video, I thought: I really need to shoot something that represents this. That was an entire week of work. Five days, start to finish. A couple days to record, master, shoot, and edit it all together.
New online platforms have forced musicians to re-evaluate how they share music, promote themselves, and earn money. How are you leveraging them?
I look at all this stuff as a tool to get my work out there. Now that technology has come so far, I’ve tried to keep up with it. Every few weeks, I’m releasing each song on YouTube as a video single. While I’m developing material for a new show, I invite the band over to my house. I introduce a new tune, we rehearse it a little bit, and then I have a really talented cinematographer light it. We do a live video shoot as we record the song. It’s amazing how much more quickly the song will come together when we have the pressure of recording it [for a video shoot] and getting it done right away.
Sir Paul McCartney came to one of your shows. What was that like?
I was playing at the Carlyle Hotel [in 2011]. We had started the show—I think I was in the middle of “Girl from Ipanema”—and all of a sudden Paul McCartney walked in and started watching us play. I knew he was planning on doing an album of standards himself, so I figured maybe he was out there trying to get ideas for songs or arrangements.
He stayed for the entire show, and after, he came up and talked to me. The whole room fell into a complete hush. And we had a really nice talk about how much he enjoyed the music. He said he really enjoyed one of my songs, “How I Will Say I Love You.”
It would be like, in the 1930s, having George Gershwin walk into your show. It was like one of those dreams where a famous person is involved. ‘Yeah, I had the weirdest dream—I was playing at the Carlyle and Paul McCartney walked in, and he stayed for the whole show and talked to me after.’ It was almost hard to believe it was going on while it was going on.