Saturday, January 30, 2010

What I'm Listening to--Right Now!

Oh, I just love it the thrill of discovery, and I've received it thanks to taking a chance on Smokey Robinson's new release, Time Flies When You're Having Fun. I've never paid close attention to the man, but he is one terrific singer!

I was drawn to this release when I saw Robinson interviewed on one of the musical segues (called the "Inspiration Sessions") that they feature on Elvis Costello's Spectacle show on the Sundance Channel. Not that he said anything especially interesting. It was just the setup: there Smokey was, talking about how he had an idea for song ("Love Bath"), and his two producers--these two young white guys--nodded and smiled as he told his story. It amused me. The song had no appeal to me, but I got caught up in the reverence being paid to Smokey. I mean, he is deserving of it, but I still thought, "So how did he snag this promotional opportunity here?"

So I gave the CD a try and oh my, from the first notes of the opening track ("Time Flies") I was a goner. This is a gorgeous ballad rendered so smoothly by Smokey. Allow me to share some lyrics.

Break of day
Why you comin’ so fast?
Go away
I don’t want to have to leave her yet
Here we lay
And we want it to last...

Like the old sayin’ goes
Everybody knows:
Time flies
When you’re havin’ fun

I'm glad that Smokey Robinson is still around to create this sound and feeling. If you wish to belittle it, you could call it "smooth jazz" or, even worse, the "quiet storm" kind of music so memorably lampooned by Garrett Morris on those old SNL skits.(You know, the one where he's swilling his "Ca-va-see-ay" and inviting you into his love nest. Hmm...just checked. Turns out Smokey coined the term when he released an album by that name in 1975!)

But over time this style of music has achieved a certain integrity. Furthermore, it's not like the Time Flies CD is besotted with it. Smokey digs in for some silky rhythmic soul numbers here ("Girlfriend") and shares the studio with some big names: Joss Stone, India.Arie, and Carlos Santana.

It's delicious, and it stands out. A diversion for me, and a welcome one at that. Trolling on the Internet, I was also reminded that Smokey Robinson took a swing at the Great American Songbook four years ago. After hearing his singing of "I'm Glad There Is You", I am totally motivated to check out the remainder of 2006's Timeless Love.

This is the kind of serendipity that keeps me in love with searching out and listening to music!

Here's another review of the album that's worth reading.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sinatra Turning the Corner

If you'd like to hear and see Frank Sinatra shortly before he terminated his career artistically, may I recommend the 4-CD/1 DVD package of live performances newly out this past holiday season?

Two of the CDs in this set and the DVD feature Frank in the 1970s. Back then even he had been steamrolled by rock, and he was troubled by his irrelevance. He retired, and then he came back in a concert at Madison Square Garden memorialized in The Main Event. He released a couple of albums in the early 1970s that Will Friedwald summarized this way in his indispensable guide, Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art.

"From 1974 to 1979, Sinatra would venture into the record studios only occasionally: when he did, the results impressed very few at the time, and even fewer since."

Well, count me among the unimpressed at the time, because I was deep into Don McLean, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, etc., but when my ears turned to Sinatra in the early 1980s I must say I found his music from the previous decade interesting. I mean, he was searching for musical filet mignon in an Outback Steakhouse world, and he used all his power to assemble music that fit into his legacy. Looking back at it now, I am moved by his plight.

In this collection you'll hear him at an April 1974 date swing Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and sweetly deliver David Gates's "If". Now I like these songs all right, but I enjoyed reading Friedwald's total trashing of this material. Allow me to share some choice remarks of his about the 1973's Some Nice Things I've Missed.

"To start with the worst, (Don) Costa arranged five uptempo pieces that are so trite one is embarrassed even to mention the title...'Sweet Caroline'...'Tie a Yellow Ribbon', the ultimate hymn to the era of platform shoes...and the unspeakably shameful 'Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.'...The pieces sound very assembly line...All in all, the charts, the songs, and the singer aren't even remotely in the same ballpark..."

Yes, I know what he's saying. This was the beginning of the period where poor Frank was becoming a parody of himself, as captured by Joe Piscopo in his Saturday Night Live skits.

I must admit to a fondness, though, for songs like "Summer Me, Winter Me" and "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?"(by Alan & Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand) and "Let Me Try Again" (Paul Anka/Sammy Cahn/Michel Jourdon) which you'll hear well-rendered in this collection.

It's great fun to hear Sinatra talk between songs. You're reminded not only of the historic time by his references, but also of a brand of humor that marked performers of his generation. There's an electricity in the air when he's on-stage that's palpable not only the DVD but in the energy that you feel from the crowd on the CDs.

He pulls off some surprises in these sets that make them well worth the purchase: chestnuts like "Autumn in New York", "When Your Lover Has Gone", "Don't Worry 'Bout Me", and "I Can't Get Started". Rest assured that the most famous numbers from his catalog are included.

The DVD that concludes this boxed set is a treasure. Recorded in 1980, it features a newly-confident Sinatra riding the wave of his last gargantuan hit, "The Theme from New York, New York." It was during this time that he entered the studio for his last great album of torch songs, She Shot Me Down. It was to be his penultimate record of fresh material. Four years later, after his L.A. Is My Lady album failed to strike commercial paydirt, he stopped recording.

He was 66 years old, and he devoted himself exclusively to touring. There were to be many fine performances in his future (about a half dozen that I witnessed) before it became clear in the early '90s that he should hang his tuxedo up.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pictures of Frank

It's 11 years and counting since he's gone, and we still miss him. And yet, as Tony Bennett writes in the introduction to Remembering Sinatra, "(He) leaves behind a legacy of music, a legacy that will live forever." Frank is always with us. Listen for him as you go about your day. He is ambient--at work, at bookstores, at coffeeshops and jazz clubs.

This book is a lovely photographic work from Life magazine. I have an appreciable collection of books about my hero, but this work had many new ones, plus it has nice long captions that get you engaged with the subject.

Images of Sinatra boozing it up with Joe E. Lewis, Jackie Gleason, and Natalie Wood. Sinatra underneath his chair on the floor, shaking with laughter. A spread where he's peering back at then-girlfriend Juliet Prowse. ("It's so nice to have a Prowse around the house," I recall him saying at the time.) There's even a spread of a 1944 issue of Junior Miss, featuring the life story of our bow-tied protagonist up till that time.

And yes, there's the September through December of his years. Frank with the elfin Mia Farrow. Then the period I'm not crazy about. The conversion to the Republican Party brings us images of Frank with Nancy and Ronnie. Thank goodness this constitutes a small part of the text.

Put on your favorite Sinatra album and enjoy this phenomenal work, published on the tenth anniversary of his passing!