Posts Tagged ‘Great American Songbook’

Robert Davi: Sings Sinatra on the Road to Romance

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Actor Robert Davi salutes Frank Sinatra

There’s a long history of actors branching into singing, some convincingly, some not so much. Actor Robert Davi, who sees himself as a singer who fell into acting, joins the former group with this salute to Sinatra. Davi shows that an actor’s expressive ability and top-notch accompaniment go a long way to recreating the character of Sinatra’s performances. Davi has a compelling baritone, and his enthusiasm for the material and the man are obvious. He’s deeply influenced by Sinatra – as would be just about anyone singing these songs at this point in musical history – but not imitative. He evokes Sinatra’s playful attitude without raiding every nook and cranny of the master’s style, leading the orchestra through swinging charts by Nic Tenbroek in the same Capitol studio Sinatra waxed some of his greatest sides. The song list is drawn primarily from Sinatra’s years with Capitol and Reprise – roughly mid-50s to mid-60s (only “Mam’selle,” from 1947, dips back into his Columbia years) – and weighs heavily to iconic swing sides. The ballads – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “Here is That Rainy Day” – haven’t the desperate loneliness of Sinatra’s originals, though the latter’s heavy strings add a nicely orchestrated mood of brooding. Davi hasn’t the perfect vocal control of Sinatra in his prime, but he evokes the attitude with affectionate vocal inflections – a trombone-like slide, hummed note or snappy verbal aside – that bring the Chairman’s style back to life. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

Tony Bennett: The Best of the Improv Recordings

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Sampling of a master vocalist’s indie sides from the mid-70s

At the turn from the ‘60s into the ‘70s, Tony Bennett – the vocalist’s vocalist – parted ways with his longtime label, Columbia. The parting dissolved their business contract, but also served as a declaration that having fruitfully co-existed with the commercial dominance of youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll, he would not compromise his artistry by covering lightweight, contemporary pop tunes. He wasn’t alone, as Barbra Streisand, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis and others were each having their arms twisted in the same direction. Bennett’s concert draw was increasing, and in his mid-40s, his voice offered a maturity and richness that may have been the best of his long and distinguished career. So rather than giving in to Columbia’s demands, and accepting other slights, he fled to MGM, and after failing to find success there, spent a few years without a recording contract.

His commercial fortunes wouldn’t be revived until his son Danny rebuilt his career in the 1980s, reuniting him with musical director Ralph Sharon, and, ironically, Columbia. But in the interim, Bennett founded his own label, Improv, and laid down some of the most artistically satisfying sides of his entire catalog. The label failed after only a few years (due to a lack of distribution, rather than a lack of quality goods), but without the major label bean counters breathing down his neck, Bennett was able to surround himself with the talents of Bill Evans, Charlie Byrd, Jimmy McPartland, Marian McPartland and others, and deeply explore jazz-inflections of the great American songbook. His five albums for Improv, along with a wealth of previously unreleased session tracks, were anthologized on the 2004 4-CD set, The Complete Improv Recordings; this single disc surveys many of the larger set’s highlights.

The selected tracks essay Bennett’s mastery in several different settings, including orchestral arrangements, duets with pianist Bill Evans, and a collection of Rodgers & Hart tunes recorded with a quartet led by cornetist Ruby Braff. The latter tracks show the jazziest edges of Bennett’s vocals as he dances atop John Guiffrida’s string bass and trades phrases with Braff and guitarist George Barnes. The duets are deeply thoughtful, as Bennett and Evans speak to each other through their music as much as to the listener, and the orchestral pieces have refined arrangements by Torrie Zito, including lovely bass and strings on “Reflections,” that winningly frame Bennett’s voice. Bennett vocalizes novel interpretations of several well-trod chestnuts, including “Blue Moon,” “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I Could Write a Book.”

The set ends with a pair of live tracks that includes a rousing take on Bennett’s trademark “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” From the thrill heard in Bennett’s voice, the enthusiastic playing of his all-star band and the crowd’s fevered response, you’d guess they were at the Fairmont atop Nob Hill, but in fact the recording was made at his record label partner’s Statler Hilton hotel in Buffalo, New York. It’s a thrilling end to a terrific set that gives listeners a taste of an artistic giant’s most independent statement of art. At just a little over twice the price for four-times the music, it’s hard not to recommend the full 4-CD set, but if a taste will satisfy you, this is a rich one. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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Frank Sinatra: Strangers in the Night

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Sinatra climbs past the Beatles to the top of the heap

By 1966 Frank Sinatra had ridden the roller coaster of artistic and commercial success to several high points, maintaining an unmatched profile of fame through radio, live performance, recording, television and film. He’d broken through as a swing-era big band singer, wowed bobby-soxers with his solo crooning, and reinvented himself (with the help of legendary arrangers such as Nelson Riddle) as a sophisticated interpreter of standards, a deep-feeling balladeer, and a ring-a-ding-ding hipster. In the last half of the 1950s he unleashed a string of iconic albums that showed his thorough mastery of down-tempo ballads, lush orchestration and snappy up-tempo romps, and in 1961 he literally became the chairman of the board, as he founded the Reprise record label.

Sinatra’s Reprise albums of the early 1960s continued to sell well, but his action on the single’s chart had been curtailed by pop music’s skew to a younger audience, the arrival of the Beatles and the musical revolution that followed in their wake. Sinatra had scored recent Top-40 singles (and a chart-topper on the adult contemporary chart with “It Was a Very Good Year” earlier in ‘66), but his last major success on the pop hit parade remained 1958’s “Witchcraft.” As had been the case when the big band era closed, and again as Sinatra’s solo career wound down in the early 1950s, many thought that Sinatra had finally estranged himself from broad popular acclaim. But someone as talented and as artistically resilient as Sinatra couldn’t be counted out so easily.

The genesis of his mid-60s resurgence was the album’s title track, combining a memorable Bert Kaempfert melody (from the film A Man Could Get Killed) with lyrics by Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder. The other key ingredient was producer Jimmy Bowen. Bowen had started out as a contemporary of ‘50s rock singer Buddy Knox, but edged his way into production as his singing career faltered. By the mid-60s he was working with all three members of the Rat Pack, and brought “Strangers in the Night” to Sinatra. Ken Barnes’ liner notes recall the urgent circumstances under which the single was recorded and distributed to radio, and how it scooped two contemporary versions to become Sinatra’s first pop chart topper. All of this was accomplished by a fifty-year-old Sinatra, who iced the cake by knocking the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” from the top slot.

With the single winding its way to #1 – it took three months to reach the top – Sinatra returned to the studio with his regular producer, Sonny Burke, to record a supporting album. The sessions reunited Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, who’d helped Sinatra re-launch his career once before with 1954’s Songs for Young Lovers and the brassy swing of 1956’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Here he and Sinatra split their attention between reanimating songs of the 1920s and 1930s, and finding something for Sinatra to say with a few contemporary numbers. In addition to the title track, Sinatra turned Johnny Mercer’s “Summer Wind” into an easy listening favorite, picked up Lerner and Lane’s “On a Clear Day” from the then contemporary Broadway show, and wrestled unsuccessfully with a pair of Tony Hatch tunes, “Call Me” and “Downtown.”

The pop tunes are given the full Riddle treatment, including a modern and soulful organ, but Sinatra isn’t impressed by either, and tosses off “Downtown” as a sop to the then-modern pop tastes. Riddle’s arrangements are typically energetic throughout, but his sublime take on “Summer Wind” inspires Sinatra’s most effortless and artful vocal in this set. Sinatra sings the older songs with a nod to their period origins, but also a free-swinging verve that brings them up-to-date. As an album this ends up schizophrenic as Sinatra moves through Bowen’s pop edgings, Riddle’s punchy charts and Hatch’s ill-fitting pop songs. The original album ends with a frenetic arrangement of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” which brought down the curtain. Concord’s reissue adds three bonus tracks: live takes of “Strangers in the Night” and “All or Nothing at All” that demonstrate Sinatra’s 1980s stage presence, and a previously unreleased first take of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” that doesn’t vary greatly from the master recording.

Though this LP was one of Sinatra’s most popular, his voice was in fine form and Nelson Riddle’s arrangements add some pizzazz, it wasn’t one of his truly great artistic achievements. The hit singles are memorable and essential elements of the Sinatra catalog, but the album cuts don’t match up with his earlier pioneering work. Unlike his Capitol albums of the 1950s, Sinatra wasn’t pushing forward anymore; he was looking back to earlier successes and looking sideways at popular music forms that didn’t excite him. This is certainly worth hearing, but if you’re just starting to build a collection of Sinatra albums, you’re better off starting with his key works of 1954-1961. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]