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Michael Feinstein: Top-of-the-Heap Singer, Equally Important Music Archivist-Historian

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Michael Feinstein has long since established himself as a first-class interpreter of the Great American Songbook. He began the trip to that performing peak when he was five and sat down at the piano to play by ear. He fostered it extensively at 20 when he left Columbus, Ohio for Hollywood and within a year nailed down a job with master lyricist Ira Gershwin. There, he gained access to some of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century, coming to understand their attitudes and approaches up-close-and-personal.

Now averaging 150 appearances around the country yearly, Feinstein is, as usual, spending December at the Manhattan boite to which his name is attached, Feinstein's at Loews Regency. He calls this year's typically jolly version "Swing in the Holiday," a title stressing one aspect of his musical inclinations and assiduously avoiding mention of Christmas, because -- Jewish with what could be called a predisposition to the kibbitz -- he celebrates Christmas and Hannukah by honoring and kidding both holidays.

Less well know about him is that because of his love of indigenous songwriting -- for which the Great American Songbook appellation came into being late in the century, when a certain segment of it seemed to be in jeopardy as a result of changes in popular-music tastes -- he's turned himself into an ardent and important music archivist and historian.

Yet, he's reluctant to acknowledge the term "historian," making the demurral for all to hear in the recently-aired PBS three-part Michael Feinstein's American Songbook -- which is now available on two DVDs with bonuses. The collection is an invaluable addition to any music-lover's library. It shows Feinstein on his constant mission to preserve the popular songs of the first two-thirds of the 20th century and his rounding up any sort of artifact related to them. As well, the three-disc set includes his fervent performances of many of the songs along with snippets of other significant singers strutting their classy stuff.

That's to say his stunning fronting-the-orchestra version of Cole Porter's mold-breakingly tricky 108-bar "Begin the Beguine" appears amid clips of, among many others, Al Jolson (whom Feinstein refuses to dismiss despite the man's fame based on songs now considered racist), Ethel Waters (whom he considers the most influential singer of the century), Rosemary Clooney (whom he deems the best female singer of the century) and Frank Sinatra (whom he's tributed in The Sinatra Project CD, where he revisited the icon's immense catalog with arrangements not lifted from the blue-eyed crooner's canon but intended to catch that spirit).

If Michael Feinstein's American Songbook accomplishes anything -- it indisputably does -- it's that his commitment to the task of perpetuating the music is at least equal to his devotion to performing. Whereas most singers look for songs in order to find material appropriate to them, Feinstein is that rare, perhaps singular, artist: He sings because of his deep-seated compulsion to keep the songs current and vital.

Otherwise, he maintains, he would have trouble singing--"I'm shy," he declares in the first hour of the series. Perhaps he is--although no one watching or listening to him would likely subscribe to the description. In the earlier part of his career when he remained at the piano, the plangent quality of his singing, the emotion it implied, hardly seemed a shy man's way of expressing himself.

When Feinstein started getting up from the piano at least a decade ago and exploiting his calculated revival of the big-band sound, he revealed a seemingly just-discovered robust delivery complete with astonishing sustained notes, often at the end of a tune. That bravura -- arguably placing him at the top of today's pop-singer ranks and combined with his saucy remarks and on-the-nose mimicry of other performers -- hardly falls under the "shy" rubric.

Talking recently about his two-pronged life's work in a second-floor Regency conference room, Feinstein in his suit and tie at first appears not shy exactly but guarded. The more he gets into it, however, the more he loosens up. Pressed to be specific about the "thousands and thousands" of songs he's accumulated in his hunt, he says, "I've catalogued 21,000, and I'd say there's another 10,000. I've picked through them, but it's difficult to play them. I can't read music. I'm not trained, you know. Every several years, I would get a coach, but after a few weeks I'd leave."

"When I started performing the material, Feinstein says, "I worried that I'm not going to have an audience in 20 years, but--and I don't mean to sound self-serving--I've been selling out wherever I perform. This music is never going to be mainstream, but there is an audience." He laughs and adds of his current optimism, "Maybe it's just because I'm immersed in it."

The most obvious question for Feinstein is where he'll place his holdings. The answer comes quickly. A notebook containing 99 George Gershwin tunes notated by the composer himself will join Gershwin material at the Library of Congress. Otherwise, the bulk will be placed in The Great American Songbook Archive & Museum, 6,000 square feet of repository space scheduled to open this coming January in Carmel, Indiana and, more specifically, in the Palladium, part of the Center for the Performing Arts.

The venue is an outgrowth of the Michael Feinstein Foundation, although Feinstein is reluctant to have his name on the collection. "It could seem self-serving," he says. Hardly. It's singer Feinstein who's selflessly been doing the mostly unsung dedicated service.