Friday, December 7, 2012

December 12, 1915

If you can honestly say you'd rather hear a melody from the Great Amerian Songbook sung by any male singer other than Frank Sinatra, you needn't read any further. 

On the other hand, if like millions of his fans, you were more than willing to accept his invitation to fly away to exotic lands where a one-man band would toot his flute for you, we can celebrate his birthday on December 12th by remembering the man and the many hours of blemish-free recordings he shared with us, not to mention his films, concert and television appearances. 

I was born in 1937, so the Frank Sinatra of the early 40's, whose singing caused countless teen-aged girls and untold adult females to swoon as he crooned, didn't include me. I feel certain, however, that my infant sensory system absorbed his distinctive sound as it floated into the nursery, emanating from the speaker of our family's never-silent table model Philco.

My parents were fans of the big bands, so my earliest Sinatra experience probably originated with the recordings he made while working with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.  The radio was the singular source of news and entertainment in the 1930's, and from it we were kept informed of Allied troop movements and other crucial data during the Second World War.  Our spirits were greatly buoyed by the songs that reminded us and the GIs that we'd be sitting under the apple tree when they all came marching home. 

Even in the very early stages of my life, Frank Sinatra impressed me with his phrasing, his sound completely impossible to duplicate: his placement (intonation) was perfect, i.e., he always nailed each note with unwavering accuracy.  He didn't have to add a hint of melisma to help his voice glide with style and grace from one interval to the next because for him, even the most demanding intervals were never more of a challenge than the simple act of breathing.   

His voice reproduced the music as written, and to add to his sonorous appeal, he could also transmit a sense of having experienced the joy or pain of a lyric, always getting the "read" right:

  "It's quarter to three ... there's no one in the place except you and me." 

"Oh, but you're lovely with your smile so warm and your cheek so soft ..." 

"I see your face before me, clouding my every dream ... you are my only theme." 

The young baritone's sound was pure and vibrant, like a cup of strong coffee.  As the voice matured, it became a more potent blend, laced with a shot of Jack Daniels.  His vocal skills became more prodigious, and the intimate nature of his interpretations also reflected his masterful microphone technique.  The voice projected a powerful virility.  It was an understated, irresistible attraction to women.  Men were impressed with his "cool" image, his nonchalant swagger, and the "I'll do it my way" mystique which developed right before our eyes.   

As a singer, my admiration for his precise enunciation and perfect diction knows no bounds.  Superb examples of these distinctive Sinatra vocal components are found in a well-known YouTube clip from 1967 (see below), in which Sinatra and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim combine to remind us of the intense emotion which can be created with subtlety, nuance, good taste and laid-back simplicity. 

The video opens with Frank at the beginning of Jobim's famous composition called "Corcovado" (or with Gene Lees' English lyric, "Quiet Nights").  The opening lines conjure a scene ripe for romance.  One can picture a beautiful room with a spectacular view, a couple having spent the day walking and talking, perhaps sharing a glass of wine in this secluded space. "Quiet nights and quiet stars, quiet chords from my guitar", as Sinatra sings them, are some of the most meltingly-seductive lyrics in the history of romantic ballads. 

The medley which follows includes Irving Berlin's "Change Partners", and "I Concentrate On You" by Cole Porter, both sung and played with infinite depth, warmth and affection.

 The video ends with a beguiling duet on what is probably Jobim's most famous song, "The Girl From Ipanema".  If you listen closely, you can hear Frank having a spontaneous fling with a hint of scat behind Jobim's vocal, and there is a charming syncopated moment at the end of the song which obviously delights them both.   

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sinatra.  I truly miss you more than words can say because the standard you set makes it nearly impossible to listen to the many sincere but transparently less qualified who would lay claim to a seat on the Board, much less the one occupied by the Chairman.   

 I think you will love these 6:30 minutes:  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I'm gonna sit write down ...

With a determination most sincere, I have recently re-joined The Jazz Journalists Association hoping that rubbing shoulders metaphorically with such luminaries as Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddens, Bob Blumenthal, Marc Myers, W. Royal Stokes, Doug Ramsey and David Hajdu, among others, may provide the inspiration I seek. Well, it's worth a try.

Because I am no longer an active performer, I rely on these gifted and discerning writers to keep me informed and curious about new, innovative musicians and singers.  Most of the time, I am disappointed by the latter, and somewhat befuddled by the former, many of whom are prime examples of a famous Jimmy Rowles put-down: "He plays as if he's getting paid by the note."  I am a devoted fan of be-bop in the style of Phil Woods or Bill Charlap or Sonny Rollins, and jazz singers who deliver uncomplicated, preferably scat-free renditions.

My introduction to the great popular and jazz vocalists of the day came to me via the air-waves, and a blessed gift it was. (Please read this previous post)  Some of the singers were members of an elite group of men and women who sat at the corner of the band stand, dressed in formal attire, smiling at the dancing couples fox-trotting past, while awaiting their turn to sing one or more songs. 

The girl vocalists were adorable, fresh and perky (as Variety often described them) as well as accomplished vocalists: Martha Tilton, Peggy Lee, Helen O'Connell, June Christy, Connie Boswell, to name a precious few.  The men were good-looking too with strong, clear voices that appealed to the ladies: Dick Haymes, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Desmond, Ray Eberly and of course, Frank Sinatra.  It was a standard format for any of the big bands of the day.  But they had voices, and had been hired because the band leader knew they could sing any melody, no matter how demanding.  And because they usually sang the songs with strict adherence to melody and tempo as specified on the lead sheet, composers loved them.   

In the late 1940's, with the decline of big-band popularity, small, improvisational jazz groups became the rage, and singers with jazz chops flourished as well. The rarified era of jazz vocals began with the emergence of Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, the original Fab Four.  Golden voices, and golden sounds of cash registers ringing up huge revenues from the sale of recordings made by these exceptional talents.  They set the standards so many hoped to emulate. The effort was made, but only a rare few even came close.  And no, I won't name names.  The singers who most impressed me impressed ME, and when I listen to their recorded legacies, I am still in awe.  No one singer was The Best or The Greatest because in art, there can be no such distinction.      


While thumbing through an issue of SAVEUR dated December, 1997, I found a small item titled "Ella Cooked".  It tells of the donation of her cook book collection to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, MA.  It is not an outstanding or remarkable collection and some seem never to have been opened.  However, there are a quite a few which are well-thumbed and annotated.  

Recipes were given check marks, one check = "not a big hit", some with four checks, and a concoction found in a slim 1950's hard-cover on "the world's choicest vintages and spirits": a drink called Goddess of Love Cocktail (3/4 jigger Pernod, 1/4 jigger Anisette) on which was bestowed an unprecedented five checks. 

I once asked her if she liked to cook, to which she mumbled a half-hearted "Um ... yeah ... sometimes".  I should clarify that at that moment I was a passenger in the jump seat of the limo driving her from the hotel to the concert venue.  She and her maid/travelling companion had been at swords' point all day, and Pete Cavallo, Ella's road manager, asked me to come along as a sort of deterrent to further heated debate.  The ladies sat in tight-lipped silence during the journey.  I don't think my presence meant much, but at least the steam seemed to subside.  Not a good idea for The First Lady Of Song to try to sing with her blood pressure on the boil. 

PS: I don't believe Ella really "messed with the pots".  She did have a full-time cook and a chauffeur, but from all accounts, she did like to read cookbooks.  Those check marks may have been made by her hired chef, indicating a meal that Ella thought especially delicious. 

Pet Peeve: Singers caught up in themselves

   Example: I once heard a particularly windy version of "What Kind of Fool Am I" sung by a male singer famous not only for his voice but for his dancing, sense of humor, and boundless energy.  The ending was a blow-out of shouted emotion delivered at gale force ferocity, ultimately crashing into the wall with this memorable mangle:

  (Orchestra, loudly, strings swelling ....)

   "And maybe then I'll know ....

    What kind of fool .... (drums building tension)

                   EYE - YAAAAAAAAAMMM"

         May you all have a great Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends.