Saturday, October 31, 2015

#18: A fancy well worth thinking of

Cole Porter may or may not have written "At Long Last Love" as he lay waiting for help in the immediate aftermath of having his legs crushed by a horse in a horrific riding accident. But we know for sure that it was written for the 1938 flop You Never Know. Two decades later, Frank and Nelson got their hands on it and recorded it for A Swingin' Affair:

I'm not sure why I rate this song so highly. Maybe it's the premise: a guy who's been waiting for love for a long, long time, and whose hopes have been raised, along with doubts. I also like Mr. Porter's elegant language: the title phrase, and words like "lark" and "fancy." I guess there's no way we could bring those back into usage? I didn't think so.

The arrangement is classic Riddle, starting gently and building in the usual gratifying way:
Is it an earthquake [pow]
or simply a shock [bop]?
I love the way Sinatra sings "or is it merely the mock?" And he finishes so strong:
Is it a fancy not worth thinking of?
Or is it at long, long, long last love?
I think it's the real thing. Go for it.

Frank did another recording of "ALLL" in 1962, this one arranged with verve by Neal Hefti for Sinatra and Swingin' Brass. Bob B. likes it better, and it surely swings, but I can't quite warm up to it; the emotional content just isn't there for me.

A couple of other takes: Here's the Live in Paris version which swings with just a sextet and in which "cocktail" becomes "whisky." And here's a fun TV performance, using the Riddle arrangement, that swings from the top. And another here. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

#19: One that will thrill and delight you

It's "The Nearness Of You," written in the 1930s by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington for Mickey Rooney (yes, you read that right) and arranged by Nelson Riddle for 1960's Nice 'N' Easy.

It's pure magic:

Sinatra was in his mid-forties when he recorded that and his maturity and vocal skills are in full, glorious display. But there's an earlier recording, arranged by Axel Stordahl and sung by a much younger Sinatra, that's lovely, too. Mark Steyn compares and contrasts:
As with "Stardust", I sometimes wish the two Sinatra versions could be combined into one ultimate "Nearness of You". In a strange way, Axel Stordahl's 1947 arrangement and Nelson Riddle's 1960 chart are the precise inversion of each other. Stordahl starts with one of his characteristic orchestral introductions - string writing of almost classical beauty, overlaid by a flute. And then Frank enters. On the Riddle arrangement, Frank starts cold:

It's not the pale moon that excites me...
It's that cold opening that thrills and delights me. More from Mark:
There's nothing under him until "pale moon", at which point Bill Miller's piano comes in. And for the first eight bars that's it: Sinatra, Miller and a "Nearness of You" that's nearer and up closer than it's ever got. And then at the end of that first title phrase Riddle throws in a little rhythmic vamp - like Stordhal's legato intro, it's flute-driven, by the great Harry Klee. Both Riddle and Stordahl were musically fecund, and hardly ever just scored a song without adding new melodic material in the form of intros and fills and codas and counter-melodies. On the 1960 chart, Riddle introduces a new string line during the second eight, and another at the end, and another in the middle section. And, although Sinatra's vocal is direct and unaffected, what's going on underneath starts to sound a little busier than it ought to be.
Yes, and the bit of drama at the end, which peaks with the word "night," is just a little too much for my taste; it used to break the song's spell for me, but not so much anymore.

Back to Mark:
Stordahl goes the opposite route. After the big intro, he draws his forces back, and you're aware of Frank's voice against the guitar, flute and other individual instruments. And he does something quite beautiful in the middle section, taking out the rhythm section entirely for the full eight bars so that, in the intimacy of the suspended pulse, Sinatra and the song seem to have moved even nearer.

Which is the right way to do "The Nearness of You"? Either. Both. I love Stordahl's intro, but I like Frank opening cold, too. On balance, I prefer Sinatra's mature vocal with Riddle on the 1960 chart, but I wonder what it would sound like against the more sensitive Stordahl arrangement. Perhaps in some celestial recording studio Frank, Ax and Nelson have worked it all out.
And to think the later version was actually cut from Nice 'N' Easy! Mark:
Sinatra's later version of "The Nearness Of You" was supposed to be the title track for an album of classic ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle. But then Lew Spence and Alan and Marilyn Bergman presented Frank with a new number: "Nice'n'Easy." And, even though it wasn't entirely simpatico with the other tracks, Capitol decided to make that the title song, and ditch "The Nearness Of You" entirely. It surfaced in 1962 on a ragbag compilation called Sinatra Sings of Love and Things, and wasn't restored to its rightful place with the Nice'n'Easy tracks until the CD era. Yet there it is on the new centennial Ultimate Sinatra collection, selected as one of one hundred tracks encompassing the entirety of Frank's career.
As it should be.

I like Norah Jones's version, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

#20: Where the air is rarefied

We've ascended into the rarefied air of my top 20 Sinatra favorites with Frank's 1965 take on Cahn and Van Heusen's fabulous "Come Fly With Me." Listen closely for the finger-snaps; Frank is completely in the groove:

The 1958 recording for the album of the same name is terrific, even iconic, but I'm with Bob Belvedere on this one; I gotta go with the later, swing-ier recording:
For years, only the edited version was available. Luckily and thankfully, the full version has been released [and is the one featured below].
This performance is the one to point to when you want to show someone the swinging side of Francis Albert Sinatra. You could put this recording as the only track on an album entitled: This. Is. Sinatra.
Unlike the version found on the album of the same name [#62], which featured a smooth take-off and nice ‘n’ easy flight, this version jets straight-up to the stars and wings it’s way swingin’ a little bit higher where the air is even more rarified.
To nit-pick just a little, this version ends with that odd line about packing a small bag, but I consider that a vast improvement over the edited version's "and don't tell your mama," which grates on me every time.

Here's the original Billy May arrangement:

Now for a choice quote from Mark's Steyn's very choice piece on this song:
Billy May was a fat, jolly, bibulous larger-than-life character. He wasn't quite so large by the time I met him, and he'd quit drinking some years earlier. But in 1957 his intake was prodigious. He drank during sessions, which unnerved some of the musicians, who found him not the most skillful conductor at the best of times. But he would announce sternly at the beginning of the evening, "Ladies and gentlemen, there'll be no drinking off the job" - and then take a slug of scotch. He became Sinatra's go-to guy for fun exotica, for "Road To Mandalay", "Granada", "Moonlight On The Ganges (My little Hindu)"... But he also was a sensitive ballad writer, and his arrangement of "Moonlight In Vermont" would stay with Sinatra all the way to the mid-Nineties.

He was also a famously fast arranger. Is it true, I asked him, that he wrote the chart for "Come Fly With Me" an hour before the session while, ahem, somewhat the worse for wear? He smiled. "Maybe two hours."

Frank Flynn, the gong-walloper on "Road To Mandalay", was with May that afternoon, playing under him at a 4pm rehearsal for Stan Freberg's radio show. "Geez," said Billy afterwards, "I still have to write two arrangements for the date tonight." In the three-and-a-half hours between wrapping up the Freberg rehearsal and walking into the Capitol session, May wrote two charts, one of which was "Come Fly With Me". Sinatra sang it for the first time that night - October 8th 1957 - and never stopped singing it . . . .
Read the whole thing.

Monday, October 12, 2015

#21: "One of the last leaves in the standard songbook"

Mark Steyn is referring above to Lew Spence and Alan and Marilyn Berman's "Nice 'N' Easy," written in 1960 for the eponymous album arranged to perfection by Nelson Riddle:

This is Mark's choice for #65 so I'll just sponge off  his wonderful essay. On the development of this great recording, he writes:
For "Nice'n'Easy", "Nelson wrote the arrangement a little faster than we thought it should be," said Marilyn, "but he made it sexy at that tempo." It's gently finger-snappy, very seductive, with that arresting stop after "all the stops". On the studio out-takes, you can hear Frank learning the song, relaxing into it, improvising different endings, some of the raunchier ones not quite so nice, and indeed a little uneasy, at least for the lyricists, who were sitting in the control room. Finally he nailed it, by playing off "every time" with an evocation of Count Basie's famous outro on "April In Paris":

Nice 'n' Easy does it 
Nice 'n' Easy" does it 
Nice 'n' Easy does it ev'ry time... 

Like the man says, one more time! 

Nice 'n' Easy does it 
Nice 'n' Easy does it 
Nice 'n' Easy does it ev'ry time. 

And then a seven-note tag from the bass, and a final snap from Sinatra.
Would it be the same song without the finger snaps? I don't think so. Back to Mark:
Nice 'n' easy did it for Frank that time, and for the authors watching on the other side of the glass. "We were surprised and delighted by the ending," Alan Bergman told me. And nobody minded that "Nice 'N' Easy" doesn't really fit the album it wound up as the title of. The rest of the songs are remakes of ballads he'd first sung in the Forties - "Try A Little Tenderness", "I've Got A Crush On You". The singing's beautiful but a little too consistent in its romantic ardor. The breezy playful sexiness of "Nice 'n' Easy" as the album opener is at odds with everything that follows. But it's awful hard to resist. It's one of the definitive Frank tracks, one of the ones you'd play if you wanted to demonstrate the Sinatra persona to a visitor from Planet Zongo. "Writing for Frank Sinatra was like writing for a character in a play," says Marilyn Bergman. "You know exactly the language, the look, the attitude, everything." 
"Awful hard to resist" is right. Read the rest, and stay tuned for [fanfare, please] my Top Twenty.

Friday, October 9, 2015

#22: "One of the best songs written in the world in the past hundred years"

That's what Sinatra said about Cole Porter's "Night And Day." And through his long career Sinatra sang and recorded it early, often, and every which-way.

I knew the lush Sinatra and Strings version first, and this spare, soulful, haunting Live in Paris performance second:

How very lovely. As time goes by that sounds better and better to me.

But when I finally stumbled upon A Swingin' Affair and heard Frank swing it I thought maybe I had died and gone to Sinatra heaven:

Way to go, Nelson! I know I must be a bit of a clod to so often prefer the up-tempo versions of Sinatra's great ballads, but I'm in good company with this one: it's Bob's favorite version, too.

Mark Steyn writes the definitive piece on this song, with references to the Muslim call to prayer, Ring Lardner's "Night and Day" parodies, Frank's misbegotten disco version, and more. So go feast upon that.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

#23: Mental, incidental, sentimental ...

Here's another song from the 1930s, the Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler standard, "Let's Fall In Love" (not to be confused with "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love," featured by Ms. EBL here).

Frank Jr., in the RDD liner notes, writes:
A wonderfully written harmonic orchestration begins with the well-constructed Ted Koehler verse. However, between the last lyric in the verse "Why Be Shy," Johnny [Mandel] had written orchestral connective tissue for the two measures of interlude between the verse and the chorus. During the actual recording Sinatra thought it would be fun to bring everything to a halt after the word "shy," and add two bars rest -- total silence fell before he started the chorus with its first word "Let's!" The idea worked very well.
Yes sir, it sure did. And that verse -- is it the best ever?
I have a feeling, it's a feeling I'm concealing, I don't know why 
It's just a mental, incidental, sentimental, alibi 
But I adore you, so strong for you 
Why go on stalling, I'm falling, love is calling, why be shy?
Why, indeed?

This is our second of three Arlen-Koehler songs. (You can probably guess the one I've yet to get to.)

See if you can come in exactly when Frank does:

That winds up my mini Ring-a-Ding Ding!-fest. Back soon with some Cole Porter/Nelson Riddle magic.

#24: Cool and breezy but burning with love

"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" is the second of two Irving Berlin songs in a row and the third consecutive track from Ring-A-Ding Ding!:

Breeziness, thy name is Sinatra. Frank Jr's liner notes credit trombonist Dick Reynolds, rather than Johnny Mandel, with the terrific arrangement.

Yes, the "off with my glove" line sounds a little silly -- what about the other glove? As Mark Steyn writes, "'Glove' is annoying singular." But what do we care? -- it's a fabulous song that has held up to lots and lots of listening.

And here's Frank singing it --and swinging it -- about ten years earlier on his TV show. I love this  performance so much that, if Sinatra hadn't chosen to do it for RDD, I think I could be satisfied with this alone:

That was most likely arranged by George Siravo.

#25: Another ring-a-ding dinger

Written by Irving Berlin in 1936 and jazzed up by arranger Johnny Mandel in 1961 for Sinatra's first Reprise album, it's the wonderful "Let's Face The Music And Dance":

 Bonus: Fred and Ginger doing their thing in Follow the Fleet:

Hope you enjoyed that.