Sunday, 9 November 2008

Frank SINATRA: A Swingin' Affair!

(#12: 21 September 1957, 7 weeks)

Track listing: Night And Day/I Wish I Were In Love Again/I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’/I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans/Nice Work If You Can Get It/Stars Fell On Alabama/No One Ever Tells You/I Won’t Dance/Lonesome Road/At Long Last Love/You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To/I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good/From This Moment On/If I Had You/Oh! Look At Me Now/The Lady Is A Tramp

Though consciously conceived by Riddle and Sinatra as the sequel to Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, A Swingin’ Affair! is a more prickly record, somewhat harder to grasp and embrace; there isn’t the elemental, logical swoop from hopeful second chance youthfulness (“You Make Me Feel So Young”) to relaxed, renewed maturity (“How About You?”). Its strands are harder to disentangle. In some ways the record is a brasher reflection of Nat’s Love Is The Thing, since titles such as “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” and “If I Had You” reflect the dreams of a man on his own. But again this mainly takes the form of a hopeful lonesomeness rather than the helpless loneliness which would characterise the next Sinatra album (Where Are You?); there is a subtler logic to the progression of songs on A Swingin’ Affair!, from the daydreams of “Night And Day” to the Joe The Crooner wowness/nowness of “Oh! Look At Me Now.” The road, however, is markedly rockier.

Riddle’s arrangements, too, started to become more inwardly adventurous. Most of these sixteen tracks are structured in the form of a harmonically ambiguous introduction by Riddle, often verging on bitonality, before settling into the song, which Sinatra sings twice. The first reading is generally solemn and somewhat stern with relatively small-scale accompaniment; but as Riddle’s musicians begin to turn up the heat Sinatra loosens up and delivers a far more emotional second reading, usually building up to the expected tumultuous brass climax and quixotic harp/flute/string/bass sign-off.

On the opening “Night And Day,” business initially appears as usual; knock knock timpani and confident brass giving way to a pause as Sinatra enters, stage right: “Night and day,” he sings, alone, before the band calmly bounce back in, complete with the bass clarinet figure from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” giving notice that this is Son Of Swingin’ Lovers. But it isn’t quite that straightforward; Sinatra enters a premature anteroom of gloom with his “in the silence of my lonely room,” his cliff-edge wavering “yearning” and “burning” and his grave circuit judge pronunciation of “Torment.”

Although this performance is nominally brighter than the one he gave Don Costa’s austere orchestration on 1962’s Sinatra And Strings, with its long, brooding, purply rubato intro, there are elements of concealed darkness here; and instead of Milt Bernhardt’s priapic trombone on “Skin” we are presented with a querulous valve trombone (played by the album’s secret hero, ex-Ellingtonian Juan Tizol) that is soon skied over by cross-cutting saxes and strings, escalating into outright atonality before settling for a not quite jubilant brassy swing. On his return, Sinatra’s surface of urbanity seems about to be gobbled up by his gradually unravelling craving; his “Wh-hy-y is it so?” is on the verge of melting and his roaring “in the ROARING traffic’s boom” pierces like a pneumatic drill of unminted desire. He omits the “yearning”; there is now only a consuming “burning” and his “tor-MENT won’t be through” before the exclamation falls back to a purr of “’til you let me spend life making love to you” – note, “spend life,” not “spend my life” as though he’s preparing to board the boat for Alcatraz. Screeching tyres of fugitive trumpets from Kenton’s City Of Glass bring his angst to the boil.

Sinatra keeps “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” an amiable amble despite the odd, greenish tint lent by the curious descending string figures in Riddle’s intro; Sinatra does well to keep his nothingness light (“I got no car, I got no mule, I got no misery”) and his breathy “What for?” suggests a sensual happiness safely beyond money’s reach, as do the satisfied sighs which he gives the holy trinity of “got my gal, got my Lord, got my song. Riddle does his best to unseat Sinatra’s saddle for traces of possible complacency – again the bitonal crisscrossing of bass trombone, then tenor saxes, then altos – but there are none, and the band blossoms into a breezy swing, trumpets firmly in the lead. Unsurprisingly, Sinatra stresses his “gal” as high strings fade into the pinkest of cocktails.

In “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans” Sinatra sets the “wronged man” tone for the album; as with Cole, he is regretful but still able to shrug betrayal and loneliness off. Thus the complacency-warning celeste in the intro is succeeded by Sinatra’s utterly bemused “another man” and baffled seesaw up and down the contours of “Before I knew where I was at.” It isn’t long before he’s able to laugh at, and laugh off, his own plight (“Why did I buy those blue pyjamas?” he muses in the aural equivalent of a slow motion Oliver Hardy head shake to camera), though by the time Riddle’s brass is blaring over Sinatra’s accentuated “I think I’ll crawl right back and into my shell/Dwelling in my personal hell,” one wonders at the level of the shield of self-denial being wielded here.

But he’s not for giving up. “Nice Work” is a sprightly jog at dusk (“Holding hands at midnight” answered by a cascading celeste stroke) with his expectant “sighin’ sigh after sigh,” like the rosiest of breezes about to blow his way from over the next mountaintop. “Just imagine someone waiting at the cottage door” he dreams, and the payoff (“and if you get it, won’t you tell me how?”) is as brisk and businesslike as his abrupt “Get it!”s. Then Riddle begins to add more players to his hitherto intimate pudding (“When two hearts become one”) and Sinatra’s confidence now begins to breeze to the foreground; his second “cottage door” is delivered with the audible smile of a Christmas postman, and by the time of his mountain-conquering “AND” in “AND then taking that vow,” he knows he can’t be stopped, even if he does sign off with a humble hiccup of “How?”

Then happiness happens. There is some slight trombone dissonance at the beginning of “Stars Fell On Alabama” but Sinatra quickly sweeps it aside with his golden broom of punctum. His “I never planned in my imagination” is a single-breath unfolding of a 1:1 scale map of the world on the planet Jupiter, though his Congressional “HAMMER!” and “DRAMA!” – he makes them rhyme – still suggest a bluffness hiding uncertainty. But not for long: “Stars FRACTURED ‘BAMA!” he exclaims, and now he is reeling in glorious disbelief that this world he wanted has now been created – “A fairyland where no one else could enter/And in the centre, just you and me!” has now become a cry of triumph, and Sinatra delivers it with an intensity which momentarily threatens to topple the balance of the track altogether.

“No One Ever Tells You” is an altogether gloomier affair, at least lyrically (“How to go on living? How to face another day?” and the singer’s suppressed, cusped cry on the word “dime”), edged along by a wearily trudging mule of a baritone sax, but Riddle’s players rally around Frank at the climax, especially drummer Alvin Stoller (also the “piercing” star of Freberg’s “Yellow Rose Of Texas”) who hammers his snare frantically and insistently, like someone trying to escape from a nailed-down coffin. Throughout, Riddle’s colours vary from considered melancholy (mid-range woodwind and strings) to self-pursuing high C trumpets.

Harry Edison, the co-star of Swingin’ Lovers!, is back for “I Won’t Dance,” his muted trumpet wriggling like a trapped thread of pant, as Sinatra commences his epic exercise in self-denial (“Heaven rest us…I am not asbestos!”). Initially he is firm and resolute, but as Riddle’s orchestra warms the place up he begins to bounce the lyric around, loosens up, both in terms of rhythm and enunciation; the courtly “You’re lovely” of the first reading mutating into “RING-A-DING-DING!” in the second. As he finds himself no longer able to fool himself, drums bring the number to a crescendo, a launch pad for Sinatra’s Everestian extended “ARMS!,” a force which the ironic kiss-off ending can’t begin to dispel.

The gospelly “Lonesome Road” is treated almost like a Gerry Mulligan mathematical exercise in rhythmic displacement with shakers, one-note deep piano runs, and Sinatra’s careful handling of a tune which veers between optimism and an unexpected ambush of plangent poignancy (the fourth bar of each refrain, over, or under, the two-syllable “ro-oad” of “lonesome road”). Sinatra and Riddle take their time to build up the intensity of the performance, so much so that one scarcely notices the incremental transitions in volume and expression which mark each bar line until, in retrospect, you look back at Sinatra’s initial “weary totin’” when set against his raging “I’M weary OF totin’!” towards the end (the whole thing could be a sequel to “One For My Baby”) before the volume cuts back to return us to the intro and a quiet end.

Cole Porter always tended to bring out the purple wax dart in Sinatra; we’ve already seen how he handles “Night And Day” and “At Long Last Love” is an admirably patient exegesis; once more, beginning quietly and unobtrusively (“Is it the good turtle soup or merely the muck?”) before the truth slowly reveals itself before the singer’s belatedly dazed eyes, the trumpets stride into the foreground and by the end Sinatra is celebrating; Granada or Asbury Park, the wild, the innocent and the E major shuffle, it’s all there and it’s all his.

With his refreshed stride Sinatra eases into the hopefully comforting slippers of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” cleverly pitching himself emotionally against Porter’s Klezmer-ish minor key refrain which almost demands sadness; he fortifies himself with unquenchable hope and soon Riddle’s orchestra have to fall in with him on the merriment side; super-exuberant brass echoes Sinatra’s squealed “…and LOVE!” Satisfied, he signs off with a spoken (or winked?) “Yummy!”

In Ellington and Webster’s “I’ve Got It Bad” Sinatra’s back in the blues (with Riddle’s strangely ominous string drone ushering us in) but demonstrates just how fine a jazz singer he was; his vowels blending in effortless melancholy with Tizol’s lugubrious trombone, his heavily regretful series of rolled “r”s on “and Monday rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrolls around,” his plaintive “sweet and gentle,” accompanied by strings alone, his gradual breaking up of the lyric (“I got it bad, I got it bad…and it’s no good”). In terms of phrasing and hidden emotional desolation this performance is almost a partner to “I’m A Fool To Want You” on Where Are You? – consider in particular the couplet “I’m glad I’m mad about her/I can’t live without her” in relation to the latter, not to mention the nearly-fervent and partly ambiguous prayer near the end (“Lord above, make me love me the way that she should” – and note how he twists that last “should” in his upper dentition to make it sound like “shouldn’t,” thereby introducing an entire new level of emotional intensity into the song). Finally he descends the cellar stairs back into his shell of hell, finishing on a sinisterly deep “no good” with the double bass locking the door behind him.

The fourth Porter song, “From This Moment On,” is one of Sinatra’s great ecstatic performances (again with Tizol providing a valvular obbligato), as moving in its hard-won way as “You Make Me Feel So Young.” At first he is, again, dazzled, slightly bewildered that it’s all happening, and to him (“Only two for tea, dear”). He even slips in a subtle lyrical reference to “Skin” to confirm that he is not dreaming. His “sweet lips” is reciprocated by an embrace of strings and harp, though at this stage musically it’s still a combo feeling.

Not for long, though. The clouds slowly and elegantly lift, Sinatra wakes up on his most brilliant day and life slowly flows back into him, and now all the baggage of the rest of the record has been shaken off; he is delivered, freed, spoken for, loved, and he is justifiably triumphant. One of the most moving moments on any Sinatra record comes when he reaches the second “No more blue songs,” and he suddenly puts the weight of the cosmos on that “songs” as though the pain of all the tormented Gordon Jenkins sides he’s going to cut has been cut free from his soul and he sounds as though he’s going to cry; he virtually screams the word “songs,” rapidly follows it up with “Only hoop-de-doo songs!” as if to howl “Don’t even think about trying it!” at the world. He will be happy, he is defiant about his happiness – it is an astonishing moment of punctum.

After that draining climax Sinatra settles back down for the jaunty “If I Had You” and can’t stop himself smiling at the second “burning desert” with the glee of someone who’s just burned his personal desert down. And, almost finally, he arrives at “Oh! Look At Me Now” which he wisely doesn’t oversell: “I’m a new man!” he exclaims, like the resuscitated Leo McKern at the end of The Prisoner. “Better than Casanova at his best!,” his good-natured boast answered by three sardonic blasts from Edison ’s horn. “DUSTIN’ my vest!” he exclaims. The man who once “laughed at those blue diamond rings” has washed away his blueness, or traded it in for a lighter, lovelier, airier blue.

I haven’t forgotten about “I Wish I Were In Love Again”; indeed have left it to nearly last in order to amplify its greatness, both as a song and as a Sinatra performance. I continue to be dazzled by the quantitative and emotional differences in Richard Rodgers’ music when Lorenz Hart, rather than Oscar Hammerstein, was writing his words, and there are two examples of their work here. “The Lady Is A Tramp” appears as a bonus track on the CD version of A Swingin’ Affair!; it was removed from the original album as Sinatra and Riddle planned to use the song again for another project, and as that other project is also the subject of next week’s Then Play Long entry I will leave more detailed discussion of the recording until then. “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” however, was the song Martin Fry sang on ABC’s Lexicon tour, with full big band, to illustrate and acknowledge at least one of his musical roots, and it’s still one of my favourites; witty and incisive to a level to which Xenomania will spend a lifetime attempting to aspire – the ambiguity of “I miss the kisses and I miss the bites,” lines and phrases such as “The conversation with the flying plates,” “cat and cur” and “The faint aroma of performing seals,” but perhaps most of all the New Pop-inventing “The self-deception that believes the lie.” There is something of the masochist about Sinatra’s bounding delivery of the song; his genuine sliding scale of regret on the phrase “No more pain/No more strain,” his rueful yet forceful “I would rather be PUNCH! DRUNK!!” But more than anything else there is his huge weep of remorse on the phrase “I don’t like quiet” and his slalom run of “loooooooooooooooovvvvvvve again” as Riddle eases back for a relatively placid ending, as though Sinatra always knew that the comfortable sofa would be awaiting him at the foot of the mountain.