It's been almost a dozen years since Frank Sinatra, the singer, actor and entertainer, breathed his last. But while Ol' Blue Eyes may be copping the eternal nod, the Frank Sinatra industry is alive, well and ring-a-ding dinging. Sinatra's got one of the hottest shows on Broadway, Come Fly Away. This Tuesday, a bunch of melismatic 20-somethings will attempt to tackle songs he made famous on the nation's most popular TV show, American Idol. And his third "new" album of the year is now in stores and online. Not bad for a guy who hasn't warbled so much as a "dooby-dooby-doo" in a decade and a half.
The Broadway extravaganza, featuring choreography by Twyla Tharp, is pleasant enough if you like that sort of thing, although it reminds me of something Sinatra said to a fan screaming out song requests at one of his concerts -- "Listen, pal, I work solo. I don't need no stooge." As for American Idol, I want to hear 21st century pop wannabes sing the Great American Songbook about as much as I'd want to hear Sinatra sing Lady Gaga (actually, Sinatra doing Gaga would be kind of interesting).
No, it's the records (CDs, downloads, etc.) -- the unadulterated music -- where you get to hear what all the fuss is about. The best of the new batch by far is Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings, due out from Concord Records this week. This gorgeous new package collects all 20 studio recordings that Jobim and Sinatra cut together between 1967-69. The first ten songs were released as Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim; the other ten are finally being released as Sinatra and Reprise Records had originally intended more than forty years ago, before it was pulled at the last minute and gained a reputation as the Great Lost Sinatra Album.
The late '60s were a fascinating and sometimes frustrating time for Sinatra, creatively and commercially. He'd weathered the onslaughts of rock n' roll and the British Invasion without missing a beat, but by the Sgt. Pepper era, it was clear that the times they were a-changin', and the generation gap was widening. As it became less and less common for record buyers and radio stations to dig both Sinatra and, say, Jimi Hendrix, Frankie decided he had to change with the times. He tried a little bit of everything, from a collaboration with Duke Ellington to covers of John Denver and the Carpenters. The results were, needless to say, hit-and-miss.
When Sinatra and Jobim first hooked up in early 1967, it had been five years since bossa nova had become the craze du jour on American shores. Plenty of major jazz and pop artists had tried their hand at the genre by the time Sinatra finally got around to it, so while it didn't sound like anything he'd done before, it wasn't regarded as a groundbreaking collaboration -- for comparison, imagine Paul McCartney cutting a grunge album five years after Nirvana's Nevermind.
Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim wasn't a huge commercial success, barely denting the Top Twenty on Billboard's album charts after Sinatra's previous three albums had all gone Top Ten. But while FAS & ACJ may not have been uber-hip at the time, over the decades it's grown in stature to become widely acknowledged as one of Sinatra's best albums of the '60s. It's a lush and incredibly romantic album, featuring Jobim's delicate guitar playing and occasional vocals, and Brazilian rhythms augmented by beautiful string arrangements by Claus Ogerman. Sinatra's vocals are uncharacteristically soft -- it's his most delicate, nuanced singing since his days as a ballad crooner in the '40s.
I like the second Sinatra-Jobim album (the imaginatively titled Sinatra-Jobim, recorded in 1969) even more than the first. Eumir Deodato did the arrangements for this one, and it's more dynamic and less monochromatic than the soft-softer-softest vibe of the first album. It still has some gorgeous ballads, but it's also got some numbers that really swing, even if they don't break a sweat. All ten tracks are penned by Jobim, and by 1969 his songs were getting more complex. Sinatra bites off even the trickiest of them with seeming ease -- including "The Song Of The Sabia," which I consider one of the greatest performances of his entire career.
Sinatra-Jobim never wound up being released, for reasons gone into by Stan Cornyn in the album's liner notes. Although he worked at Reprise, Sinatra's label, at the time the album was shelved, I'm not sure he's got his story 100% right. Cornyn credits Sinatra with getting cold feet at the last minute, but based on my research (go here if you're curious), it seems more like the machinations of the label execs, who doubted the album's commercial potential. (The record they put out instead, the weird concept album Watertown, wound up becoming one of the worst sellers of his career.)
Seven of Sinatra-Jobim's ten tracks wound up on one side of Sinatra & Company, released in 1971; two others (including "The Song Of The Sabia") came out on singles; and one, an awkward vocal duet with Jobim on "Desafinado," wasn't released until the '90s. This is the first time the entire Sinatra-Jobim album has been released in its original running order, and it's worth the four-decade wait.
Everything about this CD is first-rate. The remastering job gives new heft and fullness to the instrumentation; the notes by Stan Cornyn (the brilliant writer who penned the sleeve notes for most of Sinatra's '60s and '70s albums) are delightfully entertaining and evocative; even the Sixties-style cover art is perfect.
Given that all 20 tracks run less than an hour, I'd love to have gotten a couple of bonus tracks such as alternate takes, or the jaw-dropping Sinatra-Jobim medley taped for a 1967 TV special. But that's a small quibble indeed. This isn't another quickie cash-in to milk a dead artist's fans -- it's as essential as just about anything recorded by these two brilliant artists. And it'll no doubt make a great antidote to whatever damage has been done to your ears by the latest crop of Idol wannabes butchering Sinatra classics.