The best way to discover the Velvet Tango Room is by accident. With the ambience of a high-end mens' club of a half-century ago, meticulously mixed drinks and top-notch jazz musicians tickling the keys of the baby grand, it seems to have dropped from another world into the nondescript neighborhood of modest homes that bridges Tremont and Ohio City. In fact, its exterior looks like a drab, working-class residence.
Singer-pianist Harry Bacharach landed there one night about a year and a half ago because he "got lost." Things were pretty dead that weekday night. But another patron recognized him from a gig at Edison's, and the bartender, thinking he must be somebody, booked him for Thursdays. He's played there Mondays and Thursdays ever since. Now he's releasing Live From the Velvet Tango Room, an album that showcases his act - considerably embellished with contributions from some of this area's top musicians, such as internationally noted percussionist Jamey Haddad and Cleveland Orchestra violinist Lev Polyakin.
Anchored by Bacharach's smooth piano and feathery vocals, tunes like the not-quite-too-adorable "Blue Pajamas" and toe-tappers "Got the Feeling" and "Baby Head Face" feature spritely, infectious melodies and clever lyrics that display their creator's offbeat outlook and wry sense of humor. With co-producer/co-engineer Josh Rzepka's trumpet and flŸgelhorn punctuating tracks like the rueful New Orleans-jazz-style "Philandering Fool" and the dreamy "Petal Point," Bacharach's made a disc with an old-timey flavor that captures the high-class aura the Velvet Tango Room aims to create.
Although Bacharach was always a jazz fan - he recalls Harry Connick Jr. making it cool to like jazz when he was in his teens, and he still has all his grandfather's Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington records - his musical path has been meandering. A piano-plunker as a kid, who says he wrote his first lyrics at age five and always knew music was his passion, he met singer-songwriter Matt Harmon at Cleveland Heights High School's Taylor Academy.
"We were in in-school detention together in this room that had the greatest acoustics," recalls Bacharach. "We sang 'Find the Cost of Freedom' together."
After high school, both ended up at the University of Oregon. "I moved out there in '94; he was out there already. He said, 'These hippies will love our music.' We were playing folk music with a trippy psychedelic vibe. We wanted to be Simon & Garfunkel."
In the meantime, Bacharach met his wife, Julie. After a year in Oregon, they moved to New York, where she earned her master's degree in dramaturgy at Brooklyn College and Harmon and Bacharach continued to play together.
Then came 9/11.
"We canceled a lot of shows in New York," says Bacharach. "I was trying to perform for lower Manhattanites two weeks after 9/11. It wasn't working." Bacharach was playing bass, but he realized that to perform by himself, he'd have to go back to piano. He and Julie returned to Cleveland, and he dedicated himself to upgrading his musical skills. His jazz influences moved to the forefront as he got to know many of Cleveland's top jazz musicians.
"I took theory with Greg Slawson [of Kassaba]," he says. "I studied with Jackie Warren and Joe Hunter. I started hanging out with jazz players. I'd hang out at Nighttown. The players here are so approachable and cool. We'd go back to their houses and listen to records."
Once he started playing steadily as Harry Bacharach three years ago (he dropped his real name, Ari Friedman, he says, because "I didn't think it was Jewish enough"), he returned the favor and got both Hunter and Warren gigs at the Velvet Tango Room. He now plays around 200 nights a year, doing a 50/50 mix of his own tunes and interpretations of songs by Tom Waits, Mose Allison, Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.
Not all of Bacharach's musical contacts - or the impressive roster of players on his album - come from his musical activities. His day job, as a baker at Cleveland Heights' On the Rise Bakery, has also impacted his music career.
"Jamey Haddad would come into the bakery," he says. "We have the same barber. He hangs out at Nighttown. Same with Lev Polyakin. The entire orchestra comes into the bakery. It's their hangout."