by Eric Comstock
No one has done more to perpetuate the Great American Songbook than jazz musicians—(I always urge my students to listen to, work with, and learn from jazz musicians—and one vocalist: Frank Sinatra). While another genius, Ella Fitzgerald, runs him a close second with her Songbooks, Sinatra hand-picked standards based primarily on their emotional content—a startling, modern idea. A friend once said the mature Sinatra brought such pain to his performances that he would have been content to come out on stage, sit at a table, lower his head, and cry. Some folks would have paid good money for that! Fortunately, Sinatra just acted the songs as well as anyone ever has, whether crowing—“I’ve Got the World on a String”—or aching—“One For My Baby (and One More for the Road).” I didn’t get Sinatra at first. The first album I heard, 1957’s Where Are You?, struck me as schmaltzy and overdone. Sinatra sounded depressed to me, even bored, and a far cry from the pep-filled singers I heard on original cast recordings. Eventually, I cracked the code: Sinatra wasn’t “performing” or “presenting” the material, as people in musicals must do. He was inhabiting the songs, and we’re witnessing his private, vulnerable moments in public. Of course, Sinatra was as great a performer as he was an interpreter—the ultimate truth-telling saloon singer. He could both sing and relax in just about any tempo. He’s a lesson in economy: there’s acting in those famous eyes, rhythm in the shoulders, and everything else is what my wife, the vocalist Barbara Fasano, calls “calm … yet coiled.”
People often associate stars only with their most popular work; even the best had to record lesser material sometimes. It’s just not fair to judge Sinatra only for “Strangers in the Night”! For a thorough understanding of an artist, and to be a better one yourself, you really have to dig deeper. Albums that still astound me are Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, Close to You and More, and In the Wee Small Hours for ballads; and A Swingin’ Affair!, Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!, and Sinatra-Basie: A Historical Musical First for a jazz sensibility. That one man mastered such a variety of feels and tempos, while always remaining himself, sang with soul, passion, taste and musicianship about life and relationships in all their complexity, championed the great song-writers by name in concerts, and (little discussed) pronounced the English language so impeccably—correctly but not fussy—explains why he’ll still fascinate us 100 years from today.
Eric Comstock is a singer and pianist www.ericcomstock.net
Category: Hall of Fame