Marty Tocci mans the keyboard at old-style eatery where a piano bar ratchets up the cool quotient
Since February, the Prime Rib Restaurant & Lounge on Sandy Boulevard has had a piano bar. The owner, RenŽ Varin, gutted the banquet room and installed a Yamaha Electric Grand piano on a tiny stage with a U-shaped rail around it.
Pianist Marty Tocci got the job. He used to work at the Green Room in Northwest Portland and reckons that there are perhaps 25 piano players for every actual gig in Portland. And you thought getting a job in a coffee shop was hard.
Tocci's exactly the sort of bull-necked New Yorker you want in a bar pianist Ñ not so much for his voice but for the stories he'll tell you while he's on break.
He says he played in a lot of Mafia joints in New York and New Jersey. 'The guy that the Joe Pesci character was based on in 'Goodfellas'? He pulled a gun on me and told me to play Sinatra or I'd be dessert,' says Tocci, 58, still a bit peeved that he complied.
The piano is in action Wednesday through Saturday nights, some of which are better than others if you want to be alone. On a recent Thursday, a gaggle of yapping blondes sat with their khaki-clad menfolk, making it difficult to hear the singer. There were perhaps 10 of them, well turned out, trading gifts and talking shop. (Real estate, natch.) They prodded one of the men, Brad Masseth, 50, to get up and play. Tocci graciously stepped aside. The song, 'Honeydew,' was from Masseth's self-penned, self-released CD 'Lazy River.' (You've never heard of it because it's on Sandy Records, his own label.) Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the intro.
'Play it till you know it,' joked Tocci when he came back, and the difference in class was suddenly apparent. He gets no instructions from the boss other than to 'keep it loungey.' This means plenty of Sinatra, plenty of Nat King Cole. His taste is Duke Ellington, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen (who wrote music for 'The Wizard of Oz'), but he's no snob.
At one point, he played a strangely familiar tune, then crooned the words: 'Shake shake shake/Shake shake shake/Shake yer booty!' Minutes later he was doodling 'All Blues' from Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue' Ñ not easy without a trumpet. Next he was telling us, 'I've got the blues, the Costco blues, the Winco blues, I couldn't stand it anymore. É ' No one batted an eyelid.
He balances his drinks on the rail and his glasses on the piano, which lights up like the deck of the Enterprise, with a disk drive and options that make it sound like a harpsichord, string section, paper-and-comb, whatever. 'I never touch any of that crap,' Tocci grunts.
And why should he? The Brooklyn-born musician trained classically but was drafted into the Army, where he played in the band. His career path had him playing successful rock tours, smoky dives (Jilly's and the Knickerbocker Grill steakhouse in Manhattan) and Florida cruise ships, before he and his wife picked Portland on a whim, packed up their car and headed here 12 years ago.
He says there was a moment in the 1970s when he could have hit it big with his own duo, and a tour was booked. 'But it was the Carter administration, and the economy went to hell,' he says.
Piano bars are the lazy person's karaoke. The audience sits there and mouths along, piggybacking on the pro's rendition while getting the emotional wallop that comes from 'Strangers in the Night' and a sidecar.
'Young people are interested in this stuff because it has proper tunes and lyrics,' he says. 'Look at Norah Jones.'
The food is nothing special for the price, and there's a bit of bad feng shui in the way the pianist looks out on the wall of the video poker corral and the backs of people slumped at the bar. But there's now a tiny dance floor, where a couple shuffled around having an argument. Remember, this was a Thursday.
His No. 1 request? 'New York, New York.'
By the time he plays 'Got You Under My Skin' and 'Young at Heart,' the party people have warmed up and are far more attentive. It's actually a combo birthday, anniversary and going-away-to-get-married party. One of the women, Mary Johnson, 37, says the last CD she bought was Eminem. 'For my husband,' she adds hurriedly. She likes this sort of pace once in a while.
There's one musician who gets up Tocci's nose, though. It's the guy from Long Island, Billy Joel. Someone asks him if he'll play 'Piano Man.'
'No,' he says instantly. 'Fuhgeddaboudit.'