Two very different male singers, each with a look into music's past, looking at giants: one saluting a singer with echoes of his arrangements, one creating his own arrangements and taking chances with a composer icon.
Frank Sinatra has seemingly had almost as many salutes as an army officer during a busy week, as many toasts as would be made in a wedding reception hall for a month of Sundays, as many copies as a Xerox machine on high speed. Live shows are one thing, but for a recording, where many, many have tried, there's the danger of someone thinking, "Why don't I just play one of my Frank Sinatra records and get the real thing?" Some fare better than others because talent wins out and they are inspired rather than tired or slavish (John Pizzarelli comes to mind as one who escaped the trap). Some have a special edge over the others: the respect of a male peer from the same generation (Tony Bennett); being female, thus having a different sound by nature (Keely Smith, Carol Sloane, Betsyann Faiella); the right gene pool to lay claim (Frank Sinatra, Jr.); instrumentalists. A few who don't primarily sing standards have tried. Surprise! Michael Feinstein has found his own way to visit Sinatraland convincingly without seeming to be dressed as Frank for Halloween or being so subtle that the album sounds like just another of many fine Feinstein CDs of various standards.
The accomplished performer and lover of great songs here doesn't point at Mr. Sinatra here with the icon's style and sound swimming in his head and say, "I'm gonna sound ..."to borrow the tile of the first track, "Exactly Like You." In repertoire choices, Michael avoids most of the usual suspects, the giant commercial hits most memorably and indelibly associated with the prolific recording star. So (thank goodness), there is no "My Way" but there is a convincing "All the Way" (combined touchingly with "All My Tomorrows"'both are by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, both ballads introduced in movies by Sinatra, and the medley is the only track with Michael himself on piano).
As explained in the liner notes, the key to the approach is the "what if ..." fantasy. Several selections are songs that Sinatra might have logically recorded in the style presented here. One highlight is a ballad he commissioned from John Williams and Marilyn and Alan Bergman but that he never got to, but it's a beauty: "The Same Hello, the Same Goodbye," making its belated debut on this album as another example of the Bergman's writing realistic love songs for adults rather than fairy tales or starry-eyed teens. Life isn't easy. Bring Kleenex.
Arranger/conductor/producer for most of the tracks, Bill Elliott brilliantly fills out the crucial element, providing arrangements that consciously echo the styles of Nelson Riddle and Billy May, Sinatra's main arrangers on songs, and here we get songs the master didn't necessarily record with their charts. We recognize signature instrumental figures, the brassy slam-bang accents, the ingratiating little riffs and licks and counterpoint melodic figures, as well as the energizing pulse and kick. There's a large band with a huge string section and lots of brass. Sounds like Sinatra, right? Notably and refreshingly, the album was recorded in the old ways of the old days, with the whole band in one room and with fewer mics, the singer actually present (what a concept!), and without all the cutting and pasting and mixing and matching and messing around. This was at Capitol's recording studio, where Ol' Blue Eyes set his sight on his classic recordings of the 1950s. The excitement and in-the-moment real deal feel comes through loud and clear (in the best and both senses of that phrase). A more casual admirer without an encyclopedic memory of all things Frankophile might understandably think the some arrangements are just transcribed, but no. Though it does seem like a family reunion with all the sensibilities and sounds back, these brassy, rich arrangements and orchestrations are not identical twins but feel more like long-lost cousins.
Three Cole Porter numbers are on the set list, which is more than all right with me. They are "It's All Right with Me" (from Can Can; Sinatra did the movie version) and smashing up-tempo killer arrangements of "Begin the Beguine" and "At Long Last Love." That last number has cute additional lyrics by Marshall Barer, addressing such things as Cremora that might not be the real deal. This follows in the pattern set by the original and is a fun, easy fit.
Michael's longtime penchant for sincere ballads sung romantically also informs the proceedings, and he's as ardent as ever, eschewing irony or any skepticism that might have crept in for many no longer in their 20s. However, by the nature of its questioning lyric, "How Long Will It Last" adds the foreboding sense of doubt and walking across thin ice. It's an old song Frank Sinatra recorded early in his career but never released, and this gets a change of pace moment: vocalist China Forbes with the group Pink Martini is on hand here for what might described as classy gloom. It feels a little quaint and trembling, but is an interesting relic.
As usual, the Feinstein way is to be scrupulously respectful to the originals (meaning the songwriters' work, not the Sinatra records; Sinatra was actually somewhat notorious for taking liberties at times). Thus, there are not many surprises or new twists or twisting out of shape in approaches to these songs, mostly classics. And Michael Feinstein has become kind of a classic himself, and always a class act, near the head of the list, the cream of the crop (not Cremora). .
There have been numerous collections of Kurt Weill songs, often concentrating on the darkest and/or best-known songs, with an ambience that is heavy and brooding and, well, very German. This one is different from the run-of-the-milieu and on many tracks tries something some will find risky, some will find sacrilegious or disrespectful, and still others will find exciting and adventurous. After several listens, I'm pretty much in the last group: at first it caught my ear just by its novelty, but it's kept my attention by remaining pretty captivating. It also wins points for taking risks, bringing a new slant to the familiar, and including less familiar songs. The expected usual suspects like "September Song" and "Mack the Knife" and "Pirate Jenny" are nowhere to be found.
So who is this A.J. Teshin? He's been in a few films and music videos, and he sings in Los Angeles Choral Artists, a 25-voice classical choral ensemble. His tenor voice sounds haunting (or haunted), arresting, and, depending on the choice and needs of a song, either very vulnerable or vital and vigorous. The soothing, pretty qualities and crooning style help bring out the melodic and tender or melancholy side of Weill. The sense of high drama he's capable of unleashing suit the forcefulness of the often double-punch and intense sense that's inherent in this composer's work, as Broadway-goers were recently reminded of in the biographical show LoveMusik. The daunting, haunting opening number, "Lonely House," combines many of these elements and is so eerie it perhaps would not be out of place at your Halloween party this month to create atmosphere of a haunted (and "lonely") house.
In addition to the voice, and sometimes upstaging it, are the musical arrangements which bring modern technology and recording to the Weill canon, employing some techno/electronic sound elements, echoes, sound effects, etc. He arranged and produced the album himself. Is it a dream or a nightmare? Ethereal or too heavy-handed? Opinions will vary and the purist should be forewarned. It isn't until the final track of the 12, "It Never Was You," that the special effects and choir effects, electrical this and that, bells tolling and knelling, bells and whistles disappear into the mist and we're left alone with a man and a piano. It's gorgeous, and proves beyond a doubt A.J. doesn't need all the extras and trimmings to fascinate and captivate. One of the more bizarre and busy tracks and prime candidates for hellish spookdom is the shortest, "Arbeiterlied," just under a minute in length.
A.J.'s website mentions a theatre credit quite far afield from any Threepenny Opera type singing. In the musical Henry and Hyde in California, he played Hyde, a man confronted by his alter-ego (or rather alter-id), a singing and dancing phallus played by the other lead actor. By evidence of this recording, his talents should be able to take him to a wide range of projects beyond this Kurt Weill Project and have his stage chops tested beyond testes-related stories. In addition to more often recorded material like "Speak Low" (done nicely, with some refreshing phrasing and more on its mind that just romantic rhapsodizing reveries), there are some pieces with French lyrics ("Je ne t'aime pas," "Le train du Ciel," "Complainte de la Seine")as well as a bit of, of course, German ("Nanna's Lied"). Fun fact for theatre buffs of a later decade: in the rendition of "The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife," where the lyric refers to a hat for said military spouse, A.J. tips his hat to Company by inserting its memorable quip, "Does anyone still wear a hat?"
If you're searching for this album, Mr. Teshin's The Kurt Weill Project should not be confused with a group called The Kurt Weill Project who also recorded an album of the composer's material with a jazz twist that was reviewed in this column earlier this year. Both are worth the seeking and finding if you have a taste for the unusual treatment that can still, in unique ways, still capture and respect the source material.