Sinatra shines in new release of old recording 1962 was a very good year to be Frank

March 06, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

This is a great time to be Frank Sinatra.

After almost six decades as a professional singer, Sinatra is still celebrated as one of the great talents of the age. In its first week of release, his "Duets" album pushed past Meat Loaf and Mariah Carey to claim the No. 2 position on the Billboard album charts (not bad for a guy old enough to be Eddie Vedder's grandfather), and his endlessly repackaged back catalog continues to sell steadily.

His peers, meanwhile, have offered every homage imaginable, from tribute albums to the Lifetime Achievement Award he received at the Grammys last week.

It has not been a great time to be a Frank Sinatra listener, however. For all the enthusiasm that greeted its release, "Duets" was an embarrassment, a star-studded gimmick that failed to conceal how worn and wobbly Sinatra's voice has become. Nor has there been much new and noteworthy in the reissues, apart from flashy packaging and digitized sound.

That should change, though, and soon. For with the release of the recently discovered 1962 concert recording "Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris" (Reprise 45487, arriving in record stores Tuesday), we have a new and vivid reminder of just how great Sinatra was in his prime.

Even better, the album offers a rare and revealing glimpse of Sinatra in a small-ensemble setting. As the title indicates, there are only six musicians accompanying the singer -- pianist Bill Miller, guitarist Al Viola, bassist Ralph Pena, vibraphonist Emil Richards, saxophonist Harry Klee and drummer Irv Cottler -- and that lends a lean, jazzy edge to the performances.

It also brings out a range and subtlety that's too often absent in Sinatra's later recordings. It's worth noting that the vast majority of his recordings since the late '50s have been with orchestral or big-band accompaniment, and while that approach has produced some memorable recordings, it has also tended to emphasize the showiest, most overstated aspects of Sinatra's singing -- the punchy phrasing, the exaggerated swing cadences, the slangy substitutions in the lyrics. (Is it any wonder that this is the most frequently parodied aspect of the Sinatra sound?)

Showing Sinatra's strengths

"Live in Paris" avoids such excess. When it swings, it shows all Sinatra's strengths -- his magnificent control, his careful use of shading, his incomparable sense of rhythm -- without pushing them to the point of caricature. But when the band pulls back, the album reveals a warmth and intimacy infrequently heard in his later work.

Listen, for example, to the sextet version of "My Funny Valentine." Most performances increase in intensity until the final phrase, so the singer is at full throttle as the melody surges upward with the words "Stay, little valentine, stay." From there, the vocalist slips into a tenderer tone to complete the couplet: "Each day is Valentine's Day."

But Sinatra avoids the obvious path. First, he soft-pedals the verse's slow-building momentum to emphasize the tenderness of the lyric; then he pulls back as he reaches that second "stay," in order to keep the song from peaking. That way, he and the sextet can make a second, more improvisational pass at the song, toying with a jazz waltz rhythm while Sinatra stretches and bends the melody before arriving at a bravura finale.

Then there's "Night and Day," which finds Sinatra accompanied only by Viola's guitar. It's a stunning performance, and not simply because of the unexpectedly subtle dynamics. Instead of the usual soloist-accompanist approach, the tack Sinatra and Viola take is closer in character to a duet, with each player listening closely to the other.

When the phrases end in long, sustained notes, Sinatra seems to be savoring the harmonic ingenuity of Viola's accompaniment; when the verse turns busy, the guitarist stays out of the singer's way, supporting the melody without ever impeding the flow of words. Throughout, they think and play as one, making a big noise when the song speaks of "the roaring traffic's boom," then falling into a hush for "in the silence of my lonely room."

With Viola's help, Sinatra is able to pull real drama from the song, illuminating the lyric in ways most interpretations miss. That alone is reason enough to own this album.

A good 'Goody, Goody'

But there's much more to "Live in Paris" than that. There's a driving, jazzy rendition of "Goody, Goody," and a version of "Moonlight in Vermont" that's so lush and inviting you'll swear there's an orchestra hidden in the arrangement somewhere. There's also a reading of "I've Got You Under My Skin" that swings so sublimely and flows so perfectly you'll wonder why he ever bothered to record the song again.

Above all else, there's the sheer pleasure of hearing his voice. In 1962, Sinatra was probably at his artistic peak. He was still

young enough to invest a degree of athleticism in his performance, but he was also experienced enough to know when and where such displays were appropriate.

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