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Farewell to 2015, Frank Sinatra's Centennial Year

Generally acknowledged to be the most influential male singer—for more than one generation of vocalists approaching the mic themselves—is Frank Sinatra. Overwhelmingly "elected" as "Chairman of the Board," he sang the Great American Songbook for decades. The just-ending year was his centenary and the man who's already been honored by tribute albums over the years (by Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Oscar Peterson, Barry Manilow, Steve Tyrell, his son Frank Jr., and even Bob Dylan) had more salutes this year. Here are some that came our way.


Emerald Music

To reference the first line of a Sinatra classic Julie Budd does not do in her Remembering Mr. Sinatra album: When she "was 17, it was a very good year." That's the year this singer—who'd already chalked up a few years of nightclub gigs, recordings, and TV guest shots—landed the enviable job of sharing a bill with legend in Las Vegas. Her new CD offers numbers that were part of his concert repertoire at the time. But, taking a hint from the man who sang "My Way," she does it her way. In the first part of her career, that would have meant, well, belting and more belting, with the power of her voice and long-held notes a main calling card. Mellower after all these years and navigating her way around a ballad with sweet savoir faire, the CD is neither her most exciting nor her coziest. Affection for the material and memories is what carries the day. As in her live cabaret show with the same material, there's the reliance on a synthesizer that makes things sometimes drift into the schmaltzy side of sentimental.

Opening with the ebullient "I've Got the World on a String," there is at first a sense that she's caught the command and confidence of the man of the hour. While his was more of a peacock strut, hers suggests a somewhat more gratified serenity. And "The Best Is Yet to Come" likewise finds her smiling optimism adopting supreme self-assuredness in the lustier romantic department. However, her timing and styling on "The Nearness of You" owes far more to Barbra Streisand's embellishments of the 1960s than to the Frank phrasing. The latter is part of a lush ballad medley she seems to revel in.

Piano and arrangements are still largely handled by Herb Bernstein, who's guided her music since before she entered her teens back in the 1960s when she debuted on disc and in clubs. It's a remarkable record of longevity, but one can't help but wonder what kind of fresh adrenalin might be found should she be nudged out of the nest of that maybe too-comfortable comfort zone. Things sometimes seem predictable and too pat, possibly too studied.

But, while her voice shows signs of the years, such as a widening vibrato and less elasticity, the judicious treatment in the studio setting and the arrangements take care in presenting her to an advantage with some rough edges smoothed over and the joy and tender loving care coming through. She acquits herself rather nicely on the tear-jerker Sinatra himself contributed to in its writing, "I'm a Fool to Want You," steering clear of the very real potential of melodrama in this gut-ripping orgy of self-pity and despair. So don't underestimate the potency of nuance or nostalgia ... with flashes of more youthful exuberance still deeply in the musical fabric and personality.


Lookout Jazz Records

Cabaret singer Cynthia Crane, whose recent releases were live sets, has gone back into her archives of studio-recorded material where she'd been joined by top-drawer musicians. First and foremost, there's pianist/arranger/musical director Mike Renzi. Most tracks also feature drummer Grady Tate and bassist Jay Leonhart, and there's marvelous work by trumpeter Glenn Drewes, guitarist Jay Berliner, and others guesting.

The singer has compiled nine tracks to proclaim that Cynthia <3 [Loves] Sinatra in time for this year's 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra's birth. Four selections were issued on earlier albums and the remaining five were recorded during sessions for them but not released before. The collection of all downbeat/down-and-out balladry recalls the themed albums of the career of the objection of her affection, like Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely or the late-career She Shot Me Down. No one could sing a sob like Sinatra, but the more-often-feisty Miss Crane is down for being down in the dumps, too.

With the 20/20 hindsight of "No One Ever Tells You" and the bar room-blue-shaded classic "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," she's convincingly confessional, deep into the doldrums. The broken heart's shattering and self-medicated recovery periods are almost palpable. Too, an underlying wisdom or sense of shoulda-known-better self-chastising help vary the shades of blue as we sense the mourning of love lost while trying to philosophically chalk up the episodes to experience. But the overwhelming sorrow that rears its head and dominates for chunks of time makes us know it's a battle the character won't always win.

Those who might know the Crane voice from recent years' recordings or live appearances may note that the voice sounds strikingly more youthful and smoother on these tracks. But the genuineness and believability have always been reliable aspects of her work, and they are here. Some may miss her customary bounce-back survivor's sense in her more typical sets which mirror the feisty resilience shown in her somewhat open-book personal life.

The tasteful and classy playing by the musicians helps prevent the proceedings from becoming mawkish. I do wish Mike Renzi took more solo time at the keyboard as he's one of our finest players on sensitive ballads, and feels even more prized as years pass and his recordings with singers are fewer and further between. The album is still a major handkerchief-clutcher and the vocalist's willingness to wade in this pool of tears has a real-deal authenticity. Like Sinatra's own aching laments in an era when men weren't known to wear their hearts on their tear-stained sleeves, the vulnerability is strikingly naked. Gloomy to be sure, but at times when misery loves company, "Drinking Again," you couldn't ask for a more been-there/done-that companion at the next bar stool than Cynthia Crane.


On the Air Records

"There was a time so many years ago/ A young guy crooning on the radio/ He sang to us and we fell in love ... It's that phrasing/ Oh so simple, yet amazing ... Dear ol' blue eyes/ We're discovering with new eyes" goes the spot-on song that's an homage to Mr. S. And it has a splendid interpreter who proudly takes the passed torch and runs with it. He's just 19, but for some time he has been swinging like the old soul he is. The 2012 winner of the nationwide Great American Songbook High School Vocal Competition, Nick Ziobro has been, as part of his prize, on the bill with Michael Feinstein, whose foundation spearheads the annual contest. His concert appearances and debut full-length CD include numbers that were staples of the Master of Swing. The upstate New Yorker now in college also won the competition sponsored by The Noel Coward Society for singing from another Master's songbook.

At ease with the finger-snappers of Sinatra and ballads the legend did, Nick gives a tip of the fedora most directly with a CD single called "Sinatra." Heard in concert in Manhattan, his live performance of this nostalgic yet cool song that captures the style and panache of Ol' Blue Eyes was a highlight in a concert of work by its co-writer, Larry Kerchner (lyricist on this number), and he recently appeared in the city's Symphony Space's all-day tribute to the icon with other Frank fare.

Hubert "Tex" Arnold is the composer and arranger; Kerchner conducts. The band really kicks, recalling brassy charts by Frank Sinatra arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Billy May. On the single, Nick's voice is especially warm and oh-so musically in the sweet spot. On the ending, he demonstrates vocal strength without harshness. Others might have made it brash, slick, or droolingly fawning, but he sounds truly appreciative of the legacy of the man he was too young to have seen in person. (Sinatra died in 1998. Nick was two years old.) But he gets it. Thankfully, the song, one of my very favorites of recent times, does not try too hard and neither does the vocalist. The beaming adoration comes through in a naturally sunny way. Mr. Z. gets a grade of A.


Jazz Guitar Records

Sinatra appreciated a fine guitar player, often featuring Al Viola or Tony Mottola in concert as sole accompanist for at least one number and collaborating with the great Antonio Carlos Jobim for his bossa nova recordings. It's interesting to hear some Sinatra-connected material as instrumentals with the guitar of Lou Volpe front and center, particularly because he often favors some single-note picking, thus making the timing of phrasing the melody line (and the lyrics we hear in our heads) so prominent and evocative. The unheard Johnny Mercer words seem to hover over "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and "Days of Wine and Roses" (here the days of guitar and guitar), and we can almost taste the flavor of the grown-up musings (and, in both cases, prominence of the taste and effects of alcohol).

Indeed, in Remembering Ol' Blue Eyes (Songs Of Sinatra), the tracks where the other musicians in the small group (usually piano, bass, and drums accompanying) sit out are the most engaging and emotional. The other musicians are often used as a bed of more "blended" sound and support for the guitar work to remain the undisputed star role anyway. Occasionally, Volpe takes piano duties as well. Knowing that the second guitarist on some tracks is not another person at all, but Volpe duetting with Volpe, thanks to the technology of multi-tracking, makes those selections that much more impressive. "Softly, as I Leave You" is enhanced in this manner, but never is the temptation to dazzle taken at risk of going against the grain of this emotionally fragile story of parting with mixed emotions. The combination of his strumming chords and single-note delineation of the melody lines is a rewarding listening experience.

The guitarist has long toiled in the fields of jazz and other styles, with experience that includes touring in Bette Midler's shows and working with Peggy Lee, Judy Collins, Chaka Khan, Chet Baker, Liza Minnelli, flautist Herbie Mann, and many more. He brings a sensitivity to the ballads and a sense of joy to the selections, even when it's understated. While the melodies are accessible and easily recognizable—without the liberties often taken by jazz musicians that inspired Lorenz Hart to once write a lyric bemoaning "I Like to Recognize the Tune"—some unexpected choices come in tempo. Not shackled by having to convey the lyrics, quicker paces on pieces normally more slow and ruminative is refreshing, rather than disrespectful or just oddly inappropriate. It's like a brisk and invigorating breeze during what you expect to be a calm, uneventful stroll outdoors. Case in point: "All the Things You Are," almost always a lush ballad cloaked with formality. It is set free here.

"Europa" is certainly an odd choice as an album-ender, the track indicated as being "dedicated to the brilliance of Frank." Any connection to Sinatra is a head-scratcher. Its origins or which (if any) pre-existing melody "inspired" it is a matter of some dispute, and while its existence by this title as an instrumental is generally credited to another guitarist, Carlos Santana, a direct connection to Sinatra is tough to justify. But it does give Volpe his best showcase for pure skill in this challenging, more intense workout that is five minutes in length.


Infrared Records

Titled It Was a Very Good Year (1915), the implication that the album featuring the Rex Bell Trio makes is that 1915 was a very good year because Frank Sinatra was born in the last month of that year. There are no liner notes. Sinatra's name appears nowhere. The album cover is a shot of New York City's Flatiron neighborhood, but flip the album over and see the back cover photo of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where Sinatra played and the track listing of eight songs the singer covered, like "All the Way," which he introduced (plus what appear to be—looking at the credits—two Bell originals). Oh, and on the disc itself is a small pic of the face of Frank. I guess the idea is that when an honoree is that famous, his name is not needed. So be it. Of course, the included "It Was a Very Good Year" by the late Ervin Drake is the other reason for the album title, and the fine interpretation of this wistful gem is just one reason to recommend this collection.

The usual trio-mates (Bell on piano, Joe Vick on bass, and Dave Rogers on drums) are joined by an orchestra conducted by Sir Eric Chesher, also the CD's producer. It is still very much a jazz undertaking, with adventurous soloing by all three mainstays.

The set list is a nice mix that represents a surprising breadth of styles and time periods. "The House I Live In" is a refreshing choice in that this patriotic plea to reject prejudice not only gives a nod to the very early Sinatra period of the 1940s, but is a number that the singer brought back over the decades in concert to great effect. Then really impactful due to its earnest lyrical content, putting focus on the generally upstaged melody reveals it to be a quite graceful entity on its own. Although a seemingly unlikely choice for jazz alterations, this low-key and slower-tempoed approach is quite unexpectedly lovely as Rex Bell's fingers dance across the keys while drummer Rogers and bassist Joe Vick take charge of the underpinnings of stoic dignity.

The two previously mentioned numbers with unfamiliar title credited to Bell as composer are the album's clever surprise treats. They are inspired by Sinatra hits, reshaped and rethought as pieces that have a newness to them, but clearly owing to their musical forefathers. "Cy's Waltz" is an homage to Cy Coleman's melody of "The Best Is Yet to Come" with plenty of original thoughts. And "Grande Mela" turns out to be a reinvention of—guess what—Kander and Ebb's now iconic "Theme from New York, New York," perhaps the last thing you might expect to sound "new." It's taken apart and put back (laidback!) together, with exploratory freedom and sparkle, liberated from its ectoplasm of driving engine and insistent build.

Each of ten cuts clocks in at more than five minutes, so its total of "just" ten numbers is no shortchanging of time. Two melodies by Frank Sinatra's dear friend and neighbor—and most-covered composer—Jimmy Van Heusen are additional highlights. They are the the ballad "Here's That Rainy Day" and the aforementioned "All the Way," which is the CD's longest track at a whopping seven minutes and forty seconds, but never seems lugubrious or played-out as it is consistently interesting, emotional, and varied. For an album that never invokes Sinatra's name in its packaging, it has Sinatra written all over it.


Infrared Records

Generally recording as an instrumental act, Rex Bell's trio invites an assertive and bluesy vocalist, Genine LaTrice Perez, to add the lyric content to a small set of numbers associated with Sinatra and/or Billie Holiday, whose centenary was also celebrated in 2015. The most fortuitous overlap is an underexposed tender number about the oft-troubled/burdened Miss Holiday recorded by Sinatra, simply called "Lady Day" (Jake Holmes/Bob Gaudio). Embracing her with sympathy, the lyric stating that she "could use some love, some kindness" and describing her haunting voice that is that of a broken heart ("It's such a lonely sound") really captures the essence of the artistry and the burdened woman herself. And the singer here, not reticent when it comes to singing with some raw pain evident, makes it a visceral experience. While the trio is strong throughout, the gutsy singer can take over and upstage them with ease. The last five of the ten tracks, though, are lengthier—all well over five minutes—giving the instrumentalists more time to take their own time.

While the album includes numbers that both Holiday and Sinatra got to in their recording careers, like the Broadway-born "Yesterdays" (Roberta, 1933) and "Speak Low" (One Touch of Venus, 1943), the balance tilts towards Holiday with two of her signature pieces: the playful "Fine and Mellow" and the gut-wrenching, mournful portrait about lynching, "Strange Fruit." With the latter faced head-on and taking no prisoners in its indictment, there is no doubt that singer Perez is a force to be reckoned with. She makes a convincing case for her approach to each lyric, without discarding the Holiday (or Sinatra) imprints, but going her own powerful and stylized way. She's tougher on the sarcasm of "All of Me" (with a spurned lover crying "Take my arms/ I'll never use them," etc.) than either legend was when approaching the song more offhandedly. But, whatever she does, Dr. Bell's trio is there behind her and at her side all the way, he leading his trio to be co-passengers on the ride for his fellow Arkansas citizen.

In both the instrumental and vocal work, the durability of these songs is dynamically and compellingly proven again. And, of course, the same can be said for the influence and blueprints long ago established by the two celebrated vocalists.

- Rob Lester

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