Tag Archives: Swing

Frank Sinatra: Strangers in the Night

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]

Frank Sinatra: Christmas with Frank Sinatra and Friends

FrankSinatra_ChristmasWithFrankSinatraAndFriendsSampling of Sinatra’s post-Capitol Christmas recordings

This 2009 collection combines eight post-Capitol Sinatra tracks with selected performances by Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett & Bill Evans, and Ray Charles & Betty Carter. This is a new compilation of existing material, rather than a collection put together by Sinatra during his lifetime. Sinatra is in good voice throughout, supported by full orchestrations and arrangements from Nelson Riddle and Don Costa. He sings Christmas classics and lesser known songs, such as “Christmas Memories” and “An Old Fashioned Christmas,” written by his friends Don Costa, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, and Sammy Cahn & Jimmy Van Heusen; his original “Mistletoe and Holly” is also included.

Sinatra’s singing friends were invited to the party through the magic of archival compilation, rather than a personal summons from the Chairman. Still, the disc’s producer has done a terrific job of programming, and the re-mastering smoothly weaves together material from multiple studios and thirty-plus years of recording. Tony Bennett sings to the solo piano of Bill Evans, and Ray Charles sings a famous duet with Betty Carter (a track that also appears on the recent reissue of Charles’ The Spirit of Christmas). Mel Torme sings his own “The Christmas Song,” and Rosemary Clooney provides a warm, if somewhat wavery reprise of the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas” from her 1996 album White Christmas.

The set’s most notable tracks for collectors are a pair taken from his 1957 holiday television special Happy Holidays with Bing & Frank, the aforementioned “Mistletoe and Holly” as well as “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” Those looking for original Sinatra holiday albums should check out 1957’s A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra or 1968’s The Sinatra Family With You a Merry Christmas. You can also find a compilation of his late-40s Christmas recordings for Columbia on Christmas Songs by Sinatra (and a deeper helping of his Reprise-era work on The Christmas Collection). These are traditional and classy rather than ring-a-ding-ding, which itself can be found on Christmas With the Rat Pack. All are worth hearing, but this short collection (37 minutes) provides a nice alternative, particularly for its inclusion of related artists and two rarities. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

The Belleville Outfit: Time to Stand

belleville stand coverGypsy jazz, blue swing and country harmony

Though the Belleville Outfit makes their home in Austin, Texas, three of the members originally hail from South Carolina, and two more were drawn from school connections in New Orleans. Only violinist Phoebe Hunt is an Austin native (and a UT graduate to boot!), and the Southern roots help account for the original flavor in the band’s swing, particularly in Rob Teter’s pinched, Satchmo-style vocals. Along with the long-running Hot Club of Cowtown, this sextet has become one of Austin’s foremost proponents of gypsy jazz. The group hots things up with Reinhardt-influenced guitar runs and dramatic Grapelli-like violin flurries, but they also pick more ruminative mid-tempo blues, add keyboards (piano, B3 and Rhodes), vary their vocals from sly old-timey to fetching country harmonies, and make room for a few instrumental string jams.

As on last year’s debut, the group’s written most of the songs, adding covers of the Louis Prima/Keely Smith hit “Nothing’s Too Good for My Baby” and an up-tempo take on Walter Hyatt’s “Outside Looking Out.” The originals strike immediately with their melodic and instrumental complexity, but themes of falling, being in, running from, lamenting and losing love provide Teter and Hunt words over which to stretch their solo and harmony vocals. The jazzier tracks have a cool-cat hipness that’s balanced by earthier harmonies on the country tunes. The group’s hot-picking is impressive, but the mid-tempo twang of “Safe” and countrypolitan harmony of “Will This End in Tears” are equally fetching. The album closes with the uncharacteristically pop production of “Love Me Like I Love You,” suggesting the Belleville Outfit has a lot of musical range yet to explore. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Sunday Morning
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The Red Stick Ramblers: My Suitcase is Always Packed

redstickramblers_mysuitcase-copyTasty southern mash of Cajun, country, jazz and swing

The Ramblers fifth album, their second for Sugar Hill, continues to masterfully mix fiddle-led country and blues, Hot Club-styled jazz and galloping western swing. As the band’s evolved from imitation to influence, so too have they moved from albums stocked with covers to nearly all original material. Aside from a pair of Cajun classics, the Touchet Family’s “Old Fashioned Two Step” and Eddie Shuler’s “La Valse De Meche,” the band members have written their own country weepers, bluesy jazz and all manner of dance tunes. Actually, the entire album, as with most of the group’s repertoire, is filled with dance tunes – slow, fast and in between, this is music meant to get listeners moving.

The group’s lead vocalist (and one of its two fiddlers) Linzay Young says cheekily, “Who knew all these years of poverty, heart break, substance abuse, self-exploration and transient life-style would result in something worth-while!” Of those experiences, heartache tops the list, bending an elbow in “Drinkin’ to You,” dampening eyes on the fiddle waltz “Bloodshot,” singing the lonesome blues “Doggone My Time,” and unconvincingly giving bad times a kiss-off with “Goodbye to the Blues.” But the romantic problems aren’t all past-due as the songs find happiness in a less-then-perfect relationship, beg for another chance, navigate parental interference, and in the sly “My Suitcase is Always Packed,” avoid entanglement with an ever-ready escape plan.

The album closes with an original call-and-response jump blues “The Barnyard Bachelor” that provides a microcosm of the band’s nostalgic influences, musical chops, sweet humor and undeniable danceability. This band gets better with each release, more confident in their writing, more thorough in the absorption of their influences, and both tighter and more relaxed in their vocal harmonies and instrumental interplay. With guest helpings of accordion, steel and piano the Ramblers match suit-and-tie style to sleeves-rolled-up workmanship. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Drinkin’ to You
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Raul Malo: Lucky One

raulmalo_luckyoneFormer Mavericks vocalist summons country, swing, Latin and more

Following three albums that visited MOR supper-club pop (2006’s You’re Only Lonely), swing (2007’s After Hours), and a broad palette of seasonal sounds (2007’s Marshmallow World and Other Holiday Favorites), Raul Malo returns with his first album of original material since 2001’s Today. His latest songs circle back to the genre-stretching experiments of the Mavericks’ last two albums for MCA (1995’s Music for All Occasions and 1998’s Trampoline), but approach from the other side: rather than shedding country sounds to make room for pop and jazz influences, Malo reintroduces twangier elements into the purer strains of crooning that had become the meat of his solo career.

As on the Mavericks’ albums, Malo’s baritone draws the ear’s focus. The soaring vocal of the album’s title track is laced with twangy guitar and punctuated by a three-piece horn section. Country sounds are brought to the fore on “Lonely Hearts,” with Malo doubling his vocal, Buck Owens style, and a chugging organ adding Tex-Mex flavors ala the Sir Douglas Quintet. Malo hasn’t forsaken the Rat Pack vibe of his recent solo outings, as “Moonlight Kiss” hoofs along on a Latin rhythm, “You Always Win” sports a jazzy countrypolitan sound, and “Ready For My Lovin’” offers Ray Charles-styled gospel-blues. The baritone guitar of “Something Tells Me” offers a familiar twang to Mavericks fans, and the emotional vocal on “Hello Again” and dramatic crescendos of “Crying For You” suggest Roy Orbison’s spirit hovering nearby.

The ballad “So Beautiful” closes the album in dreamy emotion, with Malo’s voice accompanied by piano and strings. This album isn’t the left turn of Today, but aside from “Moonlight Kiss” and “Haunting Me,” it’s also not as ring-a-ding-ding kitschy as Malo’s last three albums. This new set represents a summation of all the musical flavors Malo’s touched so far, playing more as a collection of singles than a cohesive album. Fans longing for the Mavericks’ country roots will be pleased, as will late-night swingers and those who just love Malo’s incredible voice. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Lucky One
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