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Review: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, “The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings”

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When Frank Sinatra met Count Basie, it was far from a clash of the titans.  No, the “historic musical first” that occurred between the grooves of Reprise 1008 in 1962 was more like a perfect union.  Both were Jersey boys, with Basie’s formative years spent south of Hoboken, in Red Bank, New Jersey.  The men were unusually simpatico, similar in their enormous respect for musicians.  Though Basie titled a 1959 album Chairman of the Board, the title was later bestowed upon Sinatra.  When Basie put his feelings on music onto paper, he wrote, “I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter.”  Sinatra’s second album for Capitol epitomized this belief, titled (what else?) Swing Easy! and living up to the title’s promise.  The two chairmen finally paired on record in 1962 for Sinatra-Basie, following that initial effort up with a 1964 sequel, It Might As Well Be Swing.  These albums ushered in a fertile era of collaboration for Sinatra at Reprise, which found him comfortably singing alongside Duke Ellington, Antonio Carlos Jobim and even Rod McKuen.  Now, Concord and Frank Sinatra Enterprises have delivered The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings (CRE-33152, 2011) of Sinatra and Basie on one packed compact disc, and for an hour or so, all is right in the world.

Might these be Sinatra’s most overtly jazz-oriented albums?  The singer sounds supremely relaxed (even letting the occasional trace of his Jersey roots to appear in his vocals!) in front of this confident band, affording them generous room to breathe.  On Sinatra-Basie, the pianist’s solo introduction makes the first notes you hear on the opening track, “Pennies from Heaven.”  The stereo spread (mixed for this disc by Larry Walsh) allows for thrilling call-and-response between sections of Basie’s band, and the spatial presence of the players is in evidence throughout.  Basie makes his presence on the keys felt with his truly economic style; he delivers minimalistic, reassuring accents that immeasurably enhance the overall sound.  Often he starts the song off, or brings it home with an unmistakable tag.  And the Basie rhythm section smokes – guitarist Freddie Green, bassist George “Buddy” Catlett, drummer Sonny Payne all make an impression.

Earlier in 1962, Sinatra had recorded Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass with arranger and conductor Neal Hefti; though Hefti returned for Sinatra-Basie, his work was less brash the second time around.  Most of the songs were taken at mid-tempo, building to a powerful climax, but the fast-moving exceptions were notable (“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Looking at the World Thru Rose-Colored Glasses,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”).  Hefti provided a defining arrangement for Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin’s “Please Be Kind” with those exultant reed blasts, and took a number of remakes of Capitol classics to completely new levels.

When Sinatra revisited Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “The Tender Trap” only a few years after introducing it in 1955, he sounded impossibly wiser with just the right amount of vulnerability underneath the surface.  Might he fall into that tender trap again?  The trumpet insinuates as it echoes his vocals.  Just listen to Sinatra’s drawn-out “some starry night…” or his momentary hesitation in “for…for being single” for the indisputable proof as to why he’s the all-time master of interpretation. He modulates the song and the big band backing him with complete and utter control, clearly having a ball, and loosely improvising.

“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” dates even further back at Capitol for Sinatra, to 1954’s Swing Easy! as arranged by Nelson Riddle.  Hefti’s take is clever and singular, with plenty of chances for band solos and some pounding drums!  For George and Ira Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Hefti’s new arrangement barrels like a freight train.  It’s unstoppable and mesmerizing, but so very different from Riddle’s 1957 chart.  Sonny Cohn shines on trumpet.  The gentle “Learnin’ the Blues” also differs from Sinatra’s original, and plays like a supreme instruction from the master.  The orchestra taunts the singer, echoing the lyrics, and then it’s just Sinatra, Basie tickling the ivories and the beat: pure bliss.  Frank Wess (also a talented arranger for the likes of Bobby Darin) shines on flute, and his presence on the entire disc sets Sinatra-Basie apart.  Wess stands out, too, in “Rose Colored Glasses” and Sinatra’s tip of the hat to Matt Monro on “My Kind of Girl,” given a vaudevillian spirit by Hefti and featuring some hot soloing by Frank Foster and Eric Dixon on tenor saxophone.

“I Won’t Dance” is another remake from 1957’s A Swingin’ Affair, like “Nice Work.”  It ends the first album on a quiet note.  Despite his protestations, few could have resisted asking Sinatra to dance, especially with this sensual arrangement aided by Wess; Basie’s band almost sighs to the wistful Jerome Kern melody.

Many members of the Basie Band had been playing together for years, but their adaptability to the individualism of Sinatra was nothing short of a miracle: effortless and versatile.  They were likewise able to adapt to another voice as arranger and conductor when Quincy Jones replaced Neal Hefti for 1964’s It Might As Well Be Swing.  Jones was no stranger to the Basie band, having previously arranged for the unit at Reprise, winning a Grammy Award in the process.  The man christened “Q” by Sinatra had large shoes to fill, but proved himself more than up to the task!  Read all about it after the jump!

The second album, which fills the latter half of the new Complete Studio Recordings, was more reliant on freshly-minted contemporary songs.  Sinatra, Basie and Jones all knew classic songs when they heard them, though, so it’s no surprise that the album today plays like a collection of standards!  Jones actually swings a bit harder than Hefti here, and brings his own stamp to the proceedings. 

The centerpiece of It Might As Well Be Swing has to be Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”  Though first recorded in 1954 and committed to vinyl by many of the great vocalists (Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Eydie Gorme, Sarah Vaughan), Sinatra, Jones and Basie crafted the definitive arrangement, since aped by virtually every singer who attempted the song.  Jones recast it in 4/4 time, divesting it of its ballad origins.  Not far behind is their recording of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “The Best is Yet to Come.”  Its inimitable Basie intro and relaxed swing feel are now intrinsic to the song itself.

Tony Bennett was the vocalist who introduced “The Best is Yet to Come” in 1962, and years later, Bennett would pay tribute to his friend Sinatra with the album Perfectly Frank.  Yet Sinatra paid tribute to the boy from Astoria by recording two other songs on It Might As Well Be Swing that were closely associated with the younger singer: “I Wanna Be Around” and “The Good Life.”  Bennett returned the compliment, following in Frank’s footsteps with a 1965 take on “Fly Me to the Moon” in a vastly different arrangement.

The same loose playfulness that defined Sinatra-Basie sets the sparks flying on “I Wish You Love.”  Q  musically quotes “Pop goes the weasel,” and the bed of music evokes that “cozy fireplace to keep you warm” of which Sinatra is singing.  But where there’s fire…things heat up!  He exclaims, “Hot damn!  I wish you love!  All kinds of love…a whole gang of love!” and Basie seals the deal on the piano in an exuberant finish.

Two songs came from then-contemporary Broadway musicals.  Frank Loesser’s “I Believe in You” was introduced by Robert Morse (with his toothy grin) in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, singing to his mirror image in the men’s washroom.  Jones tweaks some of Loesser’s notes to the Basie band setting, moving the song away from its theatrical origins; in doing so, Sinatra could be singing the song without irony, to another party, delivering the gift of swagger!  Then there’s Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” from the musical of the same name.  Sinatra used the song to pay tribute to Louis Armstrong, who defied the British Invasion with his chart-topping rendition: “Blow your horn, Louis/Sing up a great big storm, Louis/Promise you won’t go away again!”

The most surprising cut is Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” popularized by Ray Charles.  Sinatra turns in another loose vocal, with only the slightest, perhaps winking country affectations judiciously delivered.  Jones’ chart brings this country-and-western song right into the saloon, refining the Basie band arrangement for which he had already won a Grammy Award.

The generous 16-page booklet is adorned with a cover photograph based on the original Sinatra-Basie LP art.  The booklet offers reproductions of both albums’ original front cover art in addition to new liner notes by Bill Dahl.  The original liner notes have also been retained, including a 1964 interview with Quincy Jones conducted by Reprise legend Stan Cornyn.

The musical paths of Frank Sinatra and Count Basie crossed two years later for what would be the final time on record.  The album was 1966’s Sinatra at the Sands, again arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones and featuring many of the same band members as on The Complete Studio Recordings.  As in its original studio recording, “Fly Me to the Moon” positively sizzled.  Hopefully this, one of the greatest live albums of all time, will follow from Concord, perhaps even expanded to a “complete” form with Count Basie Live at the Sands (Before Frank) which documents the Basie band’s opening set at the Las Vegas landmark.

Think back to the punning album title It Might As Well Be Swing.  Sorry, Count.  Sorry, Frank.  Listening to these titanic albums in this lovingly-produced reissue, it’s evident that it simply must be swing!

Written by Joe Marchese

September 15, 2011 at 14:51

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