december 2009

Concord Records/The Frank Sinatra Collection

An interesting collection, this, focused as it is on eight selected later-era WB/Reprise Frank Sinatra Christmas recordings (which, coincidentally, chart Nelson Riddle's diminishing role in Sinatra's recordings as Don Costa emerged as a new, favored arranger) supplemented by engaging, even moving, performances from Mel Torme, Tony Bennett with Bill Evans, Rosemary Clooney and, for good measure, the smoldering Ray Charles-Betty Carter duet on "Baby It's Cold Outside."

The unalloyed gem of the bunch is the presentation of Jimmy Webb's wistful "Whatever Happened to Christmas," originally a single only release n 1969, but later included on The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas album. To quote from the Sinatra essay elsewhere in this issue: "This might qualify as a Christmas classic if it weren't so damn depressing, but as the saying goes, it hurts so good. So maybe it is a classic anyway. Call it whatever, it's a stunning performance, and not coincidentally, Nelson Riddle is involved in it, but the heart-tugging, dark-hued arrangement is by Don Costa; Riddle is on board directing the Jimmy Joyce Singers and Orchestra. As the story unfolds in a brooding minor key, Sinatra intones Webb's poignant lyrics, seemingly addressing a populace that had allowed the true meaning of the season to be fatally altered, for reasons unspecified, although coming in 1968, as this recording did, it's easy to hear it as a comment on a fractious society losing its bearings. ‘Whatever happened to Christmas/to the Christmas way of living/whatever happened to the giving/the magic in the snow/remember the sighs and the smells and the sounds/and remember the cheery call/remember how love was all around/whatever happened to it all,’ Sinatra laments over a somber, string-laden backdrop with low, humming voices resolutely in soft focus as his emotional reading develops. Only at the end, after he has enumerated all the ills afflicting the season, do we learn he's singing from deep within a broken heart, unable to feel or understand anything save his own despondency: ‘Whatever happened to Christmas,’ he queries again at the end, before adding the devastating P.S., ‘Where was I and whatever happened to you/whatever happened to Christmas, and you.’ He didn't even see it coming and still doesn't know what hit him—blindsided by a betrayal he cannot fathom."

One of his finest seasonal arrangements of all was fashioned for the June 16, 1964 session for "I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day," the powerful testimony of faith reborn originally crafted as a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and set to music by Johnny Marks, he of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" fame. As the strings ascend gradually the chorus of singers proclaims "Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!" four times, ahead of a sudden, instant's calm preceding Sinatra's entrance. His vocal is deliberate and forceful, and he reads the lyrics with a solemnity that brooks little coloration in his voice—his is a determined quest of conscience, to find a reason to believe in a better world when evidence around him suggests a further downward spiral of civility. Between the first and second verse he pauses, the strings respond with a rapid glissando, the chorus repeats a hearty "peace on earth/good will to men" refrain, and Sinatra begins again, "And in despair I bowed my head/there is no peace on Earth I said/for hate is strong/and mocks the song/of peace on earth, good will to men"—and he bites down on the word "mocks," sings it in a spiteful tone, as if he's ashamed of himself for being played a sucker. Then another split-second pause, a bell tolls once, and Sinatra, his tone stentorian and authoritative both, extols the revealed message: "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep/God is not dead nor doth he sleep/the wrong shall fail/the right prevail/with peace on earth, good will to men," as the arrangement burst forth with a triumphant crescendo of strings, bells and voices, the latter repeating their introductory "Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!" as the song rises to a majestic finale.

The album ends on a poignant note with "Christmas Memories," written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Don Costa. A smooth, introspective ballad reminiscing fondly, and warmly, on Yuletides past, the lyric elicits a tender delivery by Sinatra, who caresses each phrase gently and evokes memories burnished by the joys of many Christmases, from the smell of cookies baking, to "cards and ribbons everywhere," to the births of new children in the family. Costa frames these musings in a plush cushion of strings and voices, injecting lightly ringing sleigh bells here and there, but keeping it all restrained, and reassuring.

That said, the lovely seasonal classic that is "The Christmas Waltz," "The Little Drummer Boy" (recorded with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians as part of an album collaboration with Bing Crosby), the haunting "An Old Fashioned Christmas" (also featuring Waring and His Pennsylvanians, and co-written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, the latter being the most recorded songwriter in Sinatra annals) and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" (rather tossed off as Sinatra Christmas recordings go, but it sounds like an outtake  from 1957's "Happy Holidays With Bing and Frank" holiday TV special) are all exemplary outings. The version of "Mistletoe and Holly" included her, though, is close to a disaster, and it's impossible to believe Sinatra would have countenanced its release were he still with us and likely accounts for it not seeing the light of day until now. His vocal is tinny, as if he were in a bare room singing into a Radio Shack cassette recorder, but it's layed over an orchestra mixed with full bodied sonics, especially on the strings; as the song winds down, the Chairman sounds a bit ragged, too, and even wanders off key for a split second.

Apart from Sinatra and the aforementioned heatwave between Ray Charles and Betty Carter, the other standout moment is the spare, probing duet between Tony Bennett's searching vocal and Bill Evans's evocative, brooding piano on "A Child Is Born," from the pair's 1977 album, Together Again, a work of austere, contemplative beauty. Mel Torme is on board with a cool version of his Yuletide monument, "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)," which finds the singer in full Velvet Fog accoutrement, messing around gingerly with his phrasing as an orchestra backs him with subtle grace—a dash of ascending strings here, a splash of sleigh bells there, a tinkling piano playing a subdued line now and then-leading to a heartwarming, lush coda. Not to be outdone, Rosie Clooney, recorded during her Concord era, reinterprets "White Christmas" (she had a history with the song, having starred with Bing Crosby in the 1954 film of the same name) with a mature wistfulness for times past but adds a splash of cheery countenance nonetheless, inspired by the onset of the seasonal delights enumerated in Irving Berlin's lyrics. The liner notes could have done the listener a greater service by cataloguing the source of the material here, but apart from that weird, offputting "Mistletoe and Holly," this collection hits all the right notes necessary to enhance the seasonal mood. —David McGee

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