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Frank in 3-D

A new set gives us the raw side of live Sinatra

by Jon Garelick

[Sinatra] On the new Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet (Blue Note), the dark oak of the singer's voice is pitted, sometimes porous, even raw. High notes crack and evaporate. He goes for low held notes (the final "me" on "Willow Weep for Me," the "way" in "All the Way") that warble momentarily off pitch, or break. When he rises up to that bend in the road on "Moonlight in Vermont," the high note on the word "bend" cracks. But the whole performance is so rhythmically sure, so swinging in every nuance (even in the self-mocking spoken asides to the audience), that the flaws are like the frays on the perfectly pressed cuffs of a Brahmin's J. Press white shirt.

There's a difference: Sinatra's performances aren't about being buttoned down, they're about going for it. Like other great performers -- Maria Callas, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Cajun singer Iry LeJeune -- Sinatra holds nothing back. His image is of the epitome of cool, and yet he's really not very cool at all, because cool is more withholding than Sinatra could ever be. Chet Baker, with the pretty-boy narcissism of his icy flat affect, was cool. Billie Holiday could be bitterly ironic, and that too was cool; when she sings "Our Love Is Here To Stay," she doesn't mean a word of it -- she knows too much, has experienced too much, to believe it. Sinatra is cool only in his confidence -- a confidence that verges on arrogance -- and in his technical control and mastery.

This new recording is a previously unreleased tape compiled from two shows in Melbourne, Australia: March 31 and April 1, 1959; and it's a legendary bootleg among collectors (Sinatra hagiographer Will Friedwald gives it four pages in his Sinatra! The Song Is You). Sinatra was 43 years old. He was nearing the end of his contract with Capitol Records, a run that produced 16 classic albums -- the "theme" or "concept" albums, like Songs for Young Lovers, In the Wee Small Hours, Only the Lonely, and Come Dance with Me. He sweated over song selection and sequence, the choice of arrangers, even individual studio musicians. Each album was to tell a particular story, create a narrative/emotional arc. And, as in the case of Come Dance with Me, when there wasn't an appropriate closing song, he ordered one up from a couple of his "in-house" songwriters, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen ("Last Dance"). He assigned morose lovers' ballad albums (the "suicide albums," Friedwald calls them) to Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins (valued especially for his string work). The hard swingers went to Billy May. And he recorded one masterpiece, Close to You, with his friends Felix and Eleanor Slatkin and their Hollywood String Quartet.

The "concept" of the Norvo Quintet album is swing and jazz. Vibist Red Norvo was both a consummate jazz improviser (he had a unique trio with bassist Charles Mingus and guitarist Tal Farlow) and a famous big-band leader. Sinatra and other singers of the era had admired Norvo's band of the '30s and its Eddie Sauter arrangements for vocals by Norvo's wife, Mildred Bailey. In fact, Bailey and Norvo had almost hired Sinatra before Harry James snapped him up. So the 1959 tour was a consummation of sorts. The quintet played Riddle and May arrangements charted for small group, and the smallness gave Sinatra more freedom to swing. With his pianist, Bill Miller, in the band, Sinatra took rhythmic liberties, traded riffs with Norvo's vibes, and otherwise fooled around in a way he couldn't afford to do with 16 players trying to follow him.

Not that the album is all that radical a departure. Sinatra sings the full complement of Cole Porter chestnuts, including a stupendous "Night and Day." There's Rodgers & Hart ("The Lady Is a Tramp"), Cahn and Van Heusen ("Come Fly with Me," and "All the Way," the latter from the Sinatra film The Joker Is Wild), gorgeous ballads like "Willow Weep for Me" and the bluesy "Angel Eyes," and the ubiquitous Arlen-Mercer Sinatra "saloon" standard "One for My Baby." The one true oddity is an offbeat musical take on Kipling's "On the Road to Mandalay."

Throughout, Sinatra is definitely not cool. He talks about broads and chicks and booze. He goofs on the lyrics of the beloved song texts that he's helped make standard. He begins to croon softly, "When somebody loves you, it's no good unless they love you"; then he shoots off into a Jerry Lewis screech -- "ALL THE WAY!" And he fires out, "Nobody sleeps in this act, Freddy!"

But, just as surely, he restarts the song and brings the mood back, and even though you can hear the smile in his voice, you're stuck in his longing. That's another way in which Sinatra isn't cool here: at times he sounds just about ready to burst into tears. His macho is dependent on his vulnerability. Like the best PC '90s men, this definitive '50s misogynist is most "manly" when he cries.

Then there's the voice itself. It's been pointed out that Sinatra's voice was in less than peak form on at least two other albums that got belated release in the US: Live in Paris and Sinatra Sings Songs from Great Britain, both June 1962, the end of an arduous tour. But after his early boy-singer gigs of the '40s (when he really was known as "The Voice," just as Stan Getz was "The Sound"), his instrument was always a variable commodity. In fact, it's remarkable how it changes from recording to recording. (On the Close to You string-quartet session, it has a special bloom that I don't think I've heard in any of his other work.) Sinatra in the '50s and later, as Friedwald points out, is the mature balladeer, singing Songs for Young Lovers, passing on his experience to a younger generation. His voice deepened and its contours became more apparent, his slight vibrato occasionally accentuated by fatigue. The vocal instrument became a three-dimensional object; four-octave belters work without limits, but Sinatra works without a net. You can sense the top and bottom of his range as he shoots high ("Come fly with me!") or dives deep ("Willow weep for me"). And that makes it all the more thrilling when you hear him push himself, turn on the power, and make those glorious highs.

In "Willow" and "All the Way," he exhales those low notes on an impossible pianissimo, the pitch wavers, he holds it, and it comes back. Even as the fringes of his sound curl and crackle, the center holds. The high note on "Moonlight in Vermont" starts to go, but not quite, and Friedwald says in his liner notes that the "bend" is a full step higher on the scale than Sinatra's usual performances. The musical daring underscores the pathos in these songs, and it also enhances the narrative drama. After an introduction by the Norvo band ("Perdido" and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea"), Sinatra comes out singing "I Could Have Danced All Night" softly, with laid-back swing and sexual innuendo. But he turns up the rhythmic heat, and the volume, with each chorus.

Friedwald has pointed out that Sinatra's extraordinary breath control was the product of his desire to sing in longer phrases (the way his former boss, Tommy Dorsey, played the trombone) because he didn't want to break the narrative line of the lyrics. You can hear that on the Norvo set not only in the breaths exhaling from one verse into the next, but in the subtle dynamic shifts. Sinatra may "improvise" a joke on a lyric, or scat with Norvo's vibes, but he always comes back to the text. Rushing ahead of the beat or falling behind, he's getting the words across and presenting them as a piece with the music. It's the old tradition of pop, where the music was always about the words. When he sings in "Dancing in the Dark" that he wants to disappear, he heightens the illusion with a natural fade, his voice disappearing into the band.

Of course, there are plenty of Sinatra albums from this period when you hear him hit those impossible notes with supple assurance in stronger fidelity than the roughly taped Norvo set offers. No One Cares, which he wrapped up with Jenkins just four days before the first Melbourne concert, is as fine an album of "suicide" ballads as Sinatra ever put together. Maybe that work -- and the trip -- is what produced the extra vocal wear that shows up on Live in Australia. But the live album is another picture of the man -- someone who, as he sings in another song, smokes too much, drinks too much, talks too loud, and doesn't get enough sleep. And is having a hell of a good time.

Thanks to Sinatra expert James Isaacs for providing additional research assistance with this article.

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