Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Sinatra and Jobim
In 1967 Frank Sinatra was in the throes of figuring out his place in contemporary pop music. His audience was in their 50s (like the singer himself) and the music of this generation was quickly becoming irrelevant. Where could he find inspiration?
At his creative peaks, Sinatra had innovated. There was the break from Tommy Dorsey and the resultant elevation of the singer in pop music. There was the swingin' collaboration with Nelson Riddle in the '50s, a decade full of refreshing reinterpretations of music from his catalog of a decade earlier. There was the establishment of his own label, Reprise Records, at the dawn of the'60s, and a flurry of work with Count Basie and old favorites like Billy May and Gordon Jenkins.
But he'd fallen into a rut. There was no locus of new material, no composer or composers who met the same standards as writers like Cole Porter had done for him earlier. Despite hits like "Strangers in the Night", "My Way" and "That's Life" (songs heavy on shlock for many listeners) he had to be wondering how influential he could remain.
In this professional chasm he reached for Antonio Carlos Jobim. The Brazilian composer was only 30 at the time, but thanks to the appeal of bossa nova to adult listeners in the early part of the decade, he had a stable of tunes that were known world-wide: songs like "The Girl from Ipanema" and "One-Note Samba".
Sinatra enlisted arranger Claus Ogerman to create charts and orchestrate a program of Jobim's bossa nova, along with bossa nova interpretions of three standards("Change Partners", "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" and "I Concentrate on You") in that style. The result was a smashing artistic success. It's some of my favorite Sinatra singing.
Will Friedwald, in his definitive history of Sinatra's studio sessions (Sinatra! The Song Is You), asserts that working with Jobim required a reversal of what had become Frank's signature style.
"...Sinatra uses the form as the vehicle for some of the softest singing he had ever done...As he says in the album's notes 'I haven't sung so soft since I had the laryngitis.' All twenty bossa nova ballads feature Sinatra's sensual, supple, and super subdued vocals atop sensitive strings, understated brass...and gently undulating Brazilian rhythm, as expressed by Jobim on guitar...Sinatra offers his most uncharacteristically reverential singing here, devoid of Frankish interjection and the familiar swagger."
All of these tracks are now available, and I strongly encourage you to purchase them. You will never tire of these songs. I can only imagine how beautiful the lyrics are in their native language: their translations are so intimate and romantic. Here's Gene Lees, the translator of "Quiet Nights", writing about another song, "Dindi" in Stereo Review.
"A Jobim song called 'Jingi' (phonetically correct) sends chills up my arms and back. Sinatra's reading of it is one ofthe most exquisite things ever to come out of American popular music. It is filled with longing. It aches. Somewhere within him, Frank Sinatra aches. Fine. That's the way it's always been: The audience's pleasure derives from the artist's pain."
In Sinatra 101: The 101 Best Recordings and the Stories Behind Them, this sidebar ends the entry on "Dindi".
Sinatra was still in 'Jobim voice' when he recorded a duet with his daughter Nancy at the conclusion of his last session with Jobim on February 1, 1967. The song, "Something Stupid," became Sinatra's biggest American hit of the sixties. When the tune was later dubbed 'the incest song,' Sinatra was not amused.
I should say! By the way, Jobim was a fine singer in his own right. If you'd like to check him out, I recommend 1980's Terra Brasilis.