october 2011


Sinatra. Basie. Exactly.

By David McGee

Frank Sinatra & Count Basie
Concord Records

Count Basie and Frank Sinatra met on two memorable occasions in a recording studio, first in 1962, again in 1964, each time with different arrangers and conductors, and on both occasions the two giants rose to the challenge each posed to the other. Their initial meeting, on the album titled Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First, has been decried by some Sinatra purists, not owing to any failing in concept or execution, but rather because seven of its 10 songs had previously been recorded by Sinatra, during his Capitol years, with the great conductor-arranger Nelson Riddle, a man who looms large in the Chairman of the Board’s legacy. Those songs--“Pennies From Heaven,” “The Tender Trap,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “I Won’t Dance,” “I Only Have Eyes For You” and Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” (which goes all the way back to Sinatra’s 1954 Riddle-arranged Swing Easy album)--rank among the many high points of the Capitol catalogue. Though some Sinatraphiles insist these are not merely high points but the definitive takes on the songs in question, the grousing about their inclusion on the first Basie album centers on the theory that Sinatra, now recording for his own Reprise label, wanted to shift ownership, in a manner of speaking, from the Capitol versions to the Basie-backed Reprise renditions. It may seem a flimsy theory, but there it is, and I didn’t make it up. No such complaints attend the material on the second Sinatra-Basie summit session, 1964’s It Might As Well Be Swing, which introduced the Chairman to the cool arrangements of Quincy Jones while being produced by one of his favorites of the post-Capitol years, Sonny Burke, whom he named musical director of Reprise (also one of the founders of NARAS, Burke is credited with creating the Grammy Awards, and was a member of the original selection committee).

Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, ‘Fly Me To The Moon,’ live in St. Louis, 1965. The studio version is included on The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings.

Now that Concord Records has made it possible to hear both Sinatra-Basie albums chronologically on a single disc, it’s hard to question Sinatra’s motives for his choice of material on Sinatra-Basie or regard as inferior the Basie versions, arranged and conducted by one of the finest of all latter-day Sinatra associates, Neal Hefti (who had done a great job as Basie’s ‘50s arranger, in fact), who had as sure a touch with sensitive, woodwind-centered arrangements as he did with boisterous, brassy workouts. Listen to “Learnin’ the Blues,” with its easy, swinging to-and-fro dialogue between the saxes and muted trumpets, the collective, warm surge of the horn section, and the Count’s economical, tasty, blues-based piano punctuations; listen to the way Sinatra phrases on, ahead of or rides over the beat as the sung pulses to its climax--listen and declare something’s lacking. Really. Or turn up your nose at a gem of an arrangement of “Pennies From Heaven” to open the album--the teasing, tart clusters of chords from the Count that glide into a swinging opening phrase signaling Sinatra’s cool, collected entrance, he bringing an assurance to the listener of good things ensuing from bad circumstances. Listen, and jeez you’re hooked--when the horns and drums start stirring things up, Sinatra affects a cocky strut in his voice, and what he does with his phrasing to affect a pose of suave nonchalance is nothing short of remarkable vocal artistry. Warren and Dubin’s “I Only Have Eyes For You,” the closest the Sinatra-Basie sessions came to a love ballad, has an interesting heat about it in the contrast between Sinatra’s restrained, measured vocal and the Basie band’s brassy exhortations between verses before Sinatra rejoins the fray and lowers the temperature a degree or two in favor of a more sensitive approach, until near the end, when he goes into belting mode as the band kicks behind him, with the added Hefti fillip of a slight echo on the vocal giving Sinatra an oddly detached but emotionally resonant presence as the song closes.

Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra, ‘I Only Have Eyes For You.’ The studio version is included on The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings.

Enter Sonny Burke and Quincy Jones for 1964’s It Might As Well Be Swing. Like Sinatra-Basie, It Might As Well Be Swing starts on a cool, bopping note, with “Fly Me To The Moon,” notable for the flute fluttering around the melody at the start, the warm horn charts, the arrangement’s easygoing gait, the energy in the burst of horns about halfway through, and of course the rhythmical precision of Sinatra’s vocal, shadowing the long melodic lines in the verses, but in the choruses breaking into an energetic on-the-beat rush to spar with the brass. Whereas Hefti disdained strings in his arrangements on Sinatra-Basie, Burke and Jones roll ‘em out, not at the expense of swing but as mood enhancers, if you will, in showcasing the Chairman’s balladic supremacy. On the bittersweet “I Wish You Love,” strings swirl under and around Sinatra in a piercing echo of the sorrow inherent in his opening lament of “Goodbye, no use leading with our chins, this is where our story ends, never lovers, ever friends/goodbye, let our hearts call it a day…," before giving way to the swaggering percussion buttressing Sinatra’s carefree, subtly sneering “I wish you bluebirds in the spring, to give your heart a song to sing” (the implication being that the Chairman is far happier to be free again than he is saddened by lost love, and hey, he hopes everything comes up roses for the gal, an attitude given a most unsubtle underpinning when a muted trumpet breaks loose at 1:06 with a snippet of “Pop! Goes the Weasel”--now that’s cold). He’s not quite as gleeful here, though, as he is on the stomping, blaring treatment of “I Wanna Be Around,” on which he can hardly contain his enthusiasm for luxuriating in the revenge scenario the song lays out.

Sinatra and The Count Basie Orchestra, ‘Where or When,’ from the Chairman’s 1966 live album, At The Sands.

Only the absence of any late-night brooding deprives Sinatra fans of a complete communion with the Chairman of legend. Come Swing With Me otherwise has the groove, the tenderness, the adventurous vocalist-orchestra dynamic, the stellar, richly textured arrangements, and the surprise or two expected of popular music’s greatest singer. As per the latter, consider his rare--exceedingly rare--foray into country, via a take on Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” that sounds country in its melody but jazzy in its horn- and string-enriched arrangement. (Of Sinatra’s few ventures into country, the best came in 1975 with a lovely, heartrending ballad, “The Only Couple on The Floor,” which to date has been released only on the 1995’s 20-CD “suitcase” collection, The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings, now selling for anywhere from $500 to $900 online; a near-miss occurred in 1968 on the Don Costa-produced and -arranged Cycles album, with an unduly string-laden version of “Gentle On My Mind” recorded during sessions otherwise notable for the surprise studio visit by George Harrison and his wife Patti Boyd, fresh from the Yellow Submarine premiere. Technically, “Home On the Range” falls into the country category, and Sinatra recorded a beautiful version of this western ballad classic in 1946, with Alex Stordhal arranging and conducting, in a melancholy setting modeled closely after Bing Crosby’s 1930s version for Columba.) The cleverest move Sinatra, Basie and Quincy make here is on a rousing, stomping rendition of “Hello, Dolly!,” which turns into an out-and-out tribute to Louis Armstrong in the last verse, fully rewritten in order to praise Satchmo’s artistry and winding up with a pounding, brassy finish that finds Sinatra shouting to Louis, “Promise you won’t go away, promise you won’t go away, promise you won’t go away…again!” Beautiful.

Among its many wonderful attributes, Come Swing With Me featured, as its liner notes, a dialogue between writer Stan Cornyn, a Sinatra insider, and Quincy Jones regarding particulars of the album sessions. Published in Q&A form, it amounts to one of the first in-depth interviews with Jones. Typical of chats in which music making has been the sole or primary focus, his answers amount to insightful, fascinating inside talk. As it was with the notes published with the vinyl album, so it is with the notes reprinted in the exemplary liner booklet for this collection: Jones’s words provide valuable background and appraisal of and context for the music contained inside. (The notes, by the way, are comprised of three parts: the liner notes for the two Sinatra-Basie albums and a solid historical overview, by Bill Dahl,  of the artist and the music on these albums.)

Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ live in St. Louis, 1965

Consider a couple of revealing exchanges between Cornyn and Jones:

Cornyn: Most of the songs come from fairly well known original versions.

Jones: Yes, we did take songs which had been identified with every specialized kinds of backgrounds, like Jack Jones’ “Wives and Lovers.” But we had to translate them because when you’re working with a combination as unique as that of Basie and Sinatra, you have to discard all superfluities and get to the bones of a song before you start building it again. I think we accomplished that. In the case of “Wives and Lovers,” for instance, we changed the ¾ waltz tempo in which it was originally written, into 4/4 time. And we also added a kind of mesmeric shuffle beat. “Fly Me To The Moon” had also originally been written as a waltz and later become famous as a bossa nova. For this date, we translated it into a swinging 4/4 time.

Cornyn: Basie, of course, is renowned for playing as few notes as possible, and that seems to be particularly in evidence on this set.

Jones: The word “economy” is an understatement when referring to Basie. During one of the tunes, Frank said, “Give me the pitch, Basie.” And Basie hit one staccato note--“splank!”--and it was all there. It’s not only economy; it’s authority. When Basie plays, there’s not waste motion just as there are no wasted notes. He knows exactly what’s needed--and how to do it.

Cornyn: Finally, what distinguishes writing for Sinatra?

Jones: To begin with, he is so personal a singer. Nobody can imitate him. Sammy Davis, Jr. is one of his closest friends and yet Frank is the one imitation Sammy really can’t do. He can do the mannerisms, but he cannot imitate that sound. Secondly, Frank is unusually sensitive. He is so flexible musically that he fits easily into every situation. And when he has an idea he wants to incorporate, he is able to immediately absorb the whole musical context surrounding that idea. He utilizes every asset he finds, and he’s an expert at eliminating stumbling blocks. Both he and Basie have this remarkable ability to eliminate the negative. In “I Wish You Love,” for instance, we had a pickup which tipped off the tempo. Frank just omitted it, starting off with the voice. A very natural thing to do and one that worked out perfectly. And there is also his rhythmic sense and inventiveness. He can stretch out a little further even in a set rhythmic figure. And he’s just not constricted by the melody as it was written. He bends it so that invariably it fits flawlessly into what’s going on in the background. So far as I can put the essence of Frank into words, I’d say that he just makes everything work. He makes everything fit, and that’s exactly what happened on these sessions.

Exactly. As the man said.

Frank Sinatra & CountBasie: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024