The Other Side Of The Coin

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Two weeks ago at Nextbop, I wrote about the nuances of the tribute album and praised Wynton Marsalis’s Marsalis Plays Monk as a masterful handling of those nuances.

A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra, recorded by the Oscar Peterson trio in 1959, is a record with a more difficult goal in mind, and unfortunately it falls far short of the mark, mainly because of the same nuances Marsalis navigated so well with his Monk record.

There are two obvious reasons why A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra might fail; surprisingly, neither is. The first is the concept itself. While it’s relatively easy for a vocalist to pay tribute to an instrumentalist (think Jon Hendricks) it’s much harder to go in the opposite direction, especially when that vocalist is Frank Sinatra, one of the most instantly recognizable voices in all of music. The second is the running time of the record. The whole thing clocks in at slightly more than half an hour, pretty measly even for the LP era.

Why is neither one the death of A Jazz Portrait? Well, the concept actually fits Peterson pretty well. Like Sinatra, the pianist liked to be well supported but wasn’t completely comfortable letting his support into the spotlight, and both favored tightly arranged tunes that they could bend to their will. And Peterson was an able vocalist himself, as he demonstrated in 1965 with his much more successful tribute record for Nat King Cole. 

But there’s a distance between the material – a competent summary of Sinatra’s biggest hits at the time – and the trio. Peterson was a kind and creative man, and I can’t really see him phoning anything in – he was too earnest for that. But this comes as close as anything could; solo space for Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen (meagre at the best of times – I always chafe at the thought that the masterful Thigpen put in his peak years getting eight bars a record of solo space with Peterson) is cut to nearly nothing, and Peterson himself breezes through anonymously arranged melodies, puts in his chorus of improvisation, and closes it out. Everything is at a high level technically, but there isn’t much here musically. 

It’s puzzling that no effort was made to replicate Nelson Riddle’s original Sinatra arrangements – the ones here barely deserve to be called such, and were probably worked out in the studio right before the red light turned on. Most tunes are taken at an easy, medium-up swing tempo, a tempo one clarinetist I played with refused to play – ”because you’ll never leave it.” The repetition of ideas is all a bit numbing.

Marsalis was able to use his Monk tribute as an opportunity to reveal something about his own style through an examination of another’s; Peterson could have done the same, but there’s no other style present. The tunes are Sinatra tunes, the running times are Sinatra running times, sure – but the arrangements, the solos, the group dynamic – it’s all Peterson. The concept is the only place Sinatra appears, and it’s just not enough.

Ultimately, A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra fails because of its lack of connection. I find it hard to believe that this record was Peterson’s idea. Though he worked well with vocalists (especially Fred Astaire) and had a nuanced idea of the tribute album (as evidenced on his Nat King Cole disc), Sinatra doesn’t seem like Peterson’s musical brother. This jazz portrait is more illustration than art.

Tout Doucement

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Why do we remember Blossom Dearie? A supper-club singer and pianist, a pure product of the 1950s with a Village haircut, an average piano style and a voice reminiscent of of a brassy Fred Astaire’s, she demonstrated over the years an unshakable commitment to lightweight material and the French language.

Just one Blossom Dearie song, or even two, fails to convince. Why did her name end up famous when so many of her colleagues in the Paris or New York clubs receded into obscurity?

She may have shared Mel Tormé and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s affinity and enthusiasm for bad material, but surely their superior technical skill and A-list friends (Judy Garland, Sinatra) elevate them far beyond the supper clubs?

Why have we forgotten Ruth Price and Lucy Reed, but remember Blossom? And what makes her 1956 Verve debut, Blossom Dearie, so great?

Her voice, first of all. It holds an innocence that makes her reading of the smirking, spunky lines of ”Everything I’ve Got” even punchier, and a guileless enthusiasm that somehow redeems songs like ”Comment Allez-Vous,” one of the three French songs on the record (”It Might As Well Be Spring” is sung in an American-accented French which belies her fluency).

Is it great jazz? Maybe not. Blossom’s Wikipedia page tells us that she often recorded in the bebop idiom, a laughable claim. Despite being married to Belgian tenorman/flautist Bobby Jaspar, an original improviser styled after Coltrane, until his early death in 1963, her own playing is decidedly background music, though it has its moments (the instrumental ”More Than You Know” is supremely tasteful).

Her singing, too, occupies a no-man’s-land of style. Its amateurish beauty could be likened to Chet Baker’s, but Baker’s readings were – for all their beauty – flat and dead; bandmates have described him as an idiot savant, not absorbing a single lyric beyond its note on the page. The only voice I’ve heard that comes close is Fred Astaire’s; not Astaire at his peak, but Astaire in 1952 with Ellis, Brown, Oscar Peterson and Alvin Stoller. His voice is thinly confident, nearing the realm of singers but always remaining conversational. Dearie is stronger here, but that conversational quality exists, as does the charm. She even sings an Astaire flagship tune, ”I Won’t Dance.”

The standout track, for me, is ”Thou Swell.” It shows Dearie’s voice at its best; threatening to slide off-key but never quite taking the plunge, devoid of vibrato, girlish but wise. Its casualness is not studied, and its amateurishness only enhances its beauty; like Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Blossom’s voice was something true to life, and that made it all the more unreachable. The arrangement is perfect, well executed but with rounded edges.

Blossom Dearie is, at heart, dinner music without dinner, background music with the foreground removed. Its continental aspirations, silly songs, and lightfooted approach may seem a bit dated now, but the voice that sing it all has aged gracefully; supper-club music it maybe be, but I’ve never wished I had the supper-club between me and that music. It’s a testament to that something, whatever it is, that makes us remember Blossom Dearie.