Monday, November 30, 2015

Frank Sinatra - "Inhabiting the Lyrics"

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Bud Shank, the late, great alto saxophonist is often quoted as saying: “The one thing you need to play this music is concentration.”

But each musician goes about their business in a different way with regard to said “concentration.”

I would checkout the lead trumpet and first alto parts of a big band arrangement and memorize where the cues were for the “kickers” so that I could really pop the drum fills that powered the arrangement forward.

The legendary guitarist Tal Farlow memorized the rapid harmonic runs of the monster pianist Art Tatum so that he could insert these in the parts of his solos where they would work - some trick!

Vocalists Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday channeled Louis Armstrong’s trumpet phrasing into the manner in which they enunciated the lyrics to popular songs in order to make them sound “Jazzier.”

But the epitome of the use of concentration in order to bring out the special inner qualities of a song’s melody may be the one described in the following piece by the author James Kaplan that appeared in the November 29, 2015 issue of The Wall Street Journal.

“A friend of mine was flying back from Europe a few years ago and began talking with his seatmate, a gentleman who happened to be a Swedish opera singer. Somehow Frank Sinatra came up, and, as my friend told me, the singer suddenly turned very grave. “Ah,” he said. “That is a voice without equal.”

Something about Frank has sunk in deeply, from San Francisco to Stockholm. In his centennial year — he was born Dec. 12, 1915 — Sinatra is much in the air, and with good reason. We celebrate his artistry, his matchless personal style, his undying charisma, his apparently inexhaustible effect on American culture.

One question I’m often asked as a Sinatra biographer is what surprised me most about my research. I usually have the feeling—Frank being Frank — that some juicy tidbit of gossip, heretofore unearthed, is what I’m being asked for. My answer probably lets people down: The most surprising thing I found out was how very hard he worked on his singing.

Though he dropped out at 16 from A.J. Demarest High School in Hoboken, N.J., Frank had a brilliant and inquisitive mind; he was verbally gifted, with an original way of expressing himself in the many notes and letters he wrote over the decades. For instance, in 1988 Daniel Okrent wrote an Esquire essay praising Sinatra’s late-age durability. In response, the Chairman sent Mr. Okrent a graceful missive thanking him for helping to “explain me to me with a rose in your prose” and for applying his “X-ray word-processor to see so deeply into the heart and soul of this very lucky son of Hoboken who remains eternally overcome at God’s plan for his life.”

Sinatra was a self-educated man, a lifelong reader, mainly of biographies. When it came to popular songs, the lyrics mattered as much to him as the music, if not more. And as soon as he began singing professionally, he started a practice that he continued throughout his career.

“I take a sheet with just the lyrics. No music,” he once told the casino mogul Steve Wynn.“At that point, I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing, the words so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together.”

Once he sang that number, on record or on stage, he inhabited that lyric, felt it so deeply that anyone listening felt it, too. Combine that with his genius ear and the phrasing he learned from Billie Holiday’s vocals and Tommy Dorsey’s trombone solos. The result is that Sinatra gives the eerie impression that he is thinking these thoughts, feeling these feelings, in the moment the listener is hearing about them. Nobody else quite manages to bring this off.

I’ve studied and written about Frank Sinatra for 10 years, and though I’ve sometimes disliked him, I’ve never been bored with him. His best singing—of which there is a very great deal—still gives me goosebumps, every time. I believe that we will still be celebrating Sinatra, and listening to him, next year, and the year after that, and (as the title of another of his numbers has it) a hundred years from today.

Mr. Kaplan is the author of “Sinatra: The Chairman,” just out from Doubleday.”

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