Friday, March 28, 2008

Come Swing With Me

Come on, get your mind out of the gutter.

Ever since junior high, I've been a huge Sinatra fan. You won't be surprised to know I got picked on and had frequent nosebleeds.

But enough about my childhood. Sinatra has three style periods: the first came during World War II when he was a matinee idol (swooned over by young "bobby-soxers") and it is generally acknowledged that his voice was purest and smoothest in this period. But he got his start as the featured vocalist first in the big band of legendary soloist and Benny Goodman bandmember Harry James. He really matured, though, working in the late 30s and early 40s with trombonist Tommy Dorsey's band. In fact, Sinatra credits Dorsey with consciously teaching him how to breathe and phrase effortlessly and seamlessly. (Listen on some of Sinatra's classic recordings--you'll be hard pressed to find a section where he interrupts a melody to breathe.)

Then after a few years in the early 50s where his voice suffered and he recorded with barking dogs and other novelties, he joined the roster at Capitol records and made a string of classic "concept albums," each with a theme and an extended mood. He worked with three arrangers, principally: Gordon Jenkins, who typically wrote bitter stark ballad arrangements with strings, Billy May, an ex-trumpet player who wrote hard-swinging, very bright and brassy uptempo charts in addition to more lush and rich ballads with large orchestras, and Nelson Riddle, who mastered the art of the midtempo single as well as turning in some of the saddest ballad arrangements and swinginest burners. Riddle was a trombone player, and so many of the seemingly smooth arrangements have absurdly meaty bass 'bone parts if you know what to listen for. (The Sinatra/Riddle hit masterpiece "I've Got You Under My Skin" has a very notable, powerful trombone soli that leads to the climax.)

In the early 60s, Sinatra founded his own label, Reprise Records. This is just like Herb Alpert's founding of A & M, only Sinatra was already a big star. It allowed him to explore other projects, take total control of revenue, repertoire, and distribution, and finally to sell the label to a conglomerate for bookoo bucks.

He still owed Capitol several albums, and one of his final was a Billy May collaboration called "Come Swing With Me." (Their previous two collaborations, better albums overall, were "Come Fly with Me" and "Come Dance With Me"--btw, a few tracks were "ghost arranged.") It features not one but two all-brass big bands. In place of saxophones, there are french horns. One big band is in each channel and often beat for beat and phrase will alternate from one channel to the next. The guns are blazing, but the group also plays enormously soft and
the horns are effective blazing and also playing very soft lines. My only complaint is that sometime the 'bones are buried in the mix. He sounds hoarse the whole session, probably from singing over 40+ brass musicians!

This is before the age of overdub tricks, and what's amazing is the uniformity of style, where a whole big band matches a whole big band note for note, beat for beat.

At the same time he was working on this, Sinatra was recording a Dorsey tribute, and in two years (1963) he would record "Sinatra and Swingin' Brass." Though it includes saxes, it is indeed brassy, and some might say disgusting. It is arranged by Neil Hefti, a classic Basie arranger, but by then Hefti's day job was writing music for the Batman! series.




My point? The sound of brass was cool, it was swingin', it was the bachelor pad sound. And in walked Herb Alpert, right around this time.

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