A suit-wearing, gambling, whiskey-drinking master of irreverent one-liners, jazz/pop singer JB Baretsky would fit right in as a member of the 1960s Rat Pack. But it wasn’t always this way for the 25-year-old Central Islip native, who now resides in Commack.
“When I first started forming bands, I thought I was like Rob Thomas, being all cool and sexy singing Matchbox 20 songs and rock and roll,” recalls Baretsky. “But my dad always had the oldies station on, so I was also the kid singing songs that no one ever knew, songs by Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. The kids were like, ‘No, I don’t know that, I only know Tupac.’”
After watching his uncle struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Baretsky felt compelled to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a singer. He joined a jazz club at St. Joseph’s College in 2010, where he met his guitarist Tom Sheridan and his pianist Sommer O’Malley. But it was when Baretsky sent a demo recording of his big band version of the song “Moondance” to high school friend Raj Tawney that things started to happen.
“Raj was always in the music industry and wanted to manage me,” says Baretsky. “So he told me to man up and send him a demo and we’d go from there. When I sent it to him he said, ‘Wow, you can really sing in that classic style, you should probably go with that sound.’”
His new manager took him to a local recording studio where Baretsky cut dozens of songs—from “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Birth of the Blues” to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” He now has more than 24 recordings available on his YouTube channel, including fresh, jazzy renditions of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and Mike Posner’s “Cooler Than Me,” along with two originals. Baretsky has developed a strong online presence in anticipation of the summer release of his debut CD, Less Is More, which will include four to six originals and some covers.
“Covering contemporary songs helps capture a wider audience and helps them discover some of the classics and other work I do,” reveals Baretsky. “Ninety percent of the time when I think of something, it somehow turns into jazz. I do feel my originals take on more of the pop kind of genre, but I feel ok with that because my lyrics are written in the style of a story, with meaning behind the words. I’m not just writing about going to a club to get drunk.”
The charismatic singer, who can play piano, harmonica and trumpet, would most like to tour with someone like Jamie Cullum or Michael Bublé, to whom Baretsky is often compared. He is flattered by the comparison, but Baretsky is the first to point out their differences.
“We have very different voices, obviously, but it’s also in the way we approach our performances. If you were going to compare us to the Rat Pack, I would probably say Bublé is more of a Sinatra, who has an incredible voice and you’re blown away by what he’s singing. And I feel like people see me more in the vein of a Sammy Davis Jr. or Dean Martin, because I can sing, but I also make you laugh at the same time, it’s all a performance with me.”
Baretsky attributes his comedic background—from drama club in grammar school to improv in college—with helping him engage the crowd when he performs live. He had no formal training, but he’s a natural at reading the audience and trying to stir them. “If I can make fun of somebody’s shoes in the middle of a song,” Baretsky says, “I’m bringing them back to me.”
When he takes the stage in his suit and skinny tie, a throwback to the fifties, Baretsky often plays jazz standards, originals and a couple of songs from the 90s, like the Goo Goo Dolls or Oasis, and maybe even a Billy Joel cover to rouse the crowd. Though he feels the appeal of big band jazz is universal, Baretsky acknowledges that his generation was raised on hip-rock and dance music.
“Nowadays, you feel like you have to hide if you like this kind of music or if you like country music or classic rock,” Baretsky notes. “People think they have to hide because it’s not mainstream. I just want to let them know there are other styles of music out there, and that jazz isn’t dead… I don’t want to see the day when Ke$ha is going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I would lose my lunch over that.”
JB Baretsky has a residency at Huntington Social and will be playing on June 29. For more info, check out facebook.com/JBBaretsky.