Category Archives: Jazz

John Coltrane – A Love Supreme – Classic Music Review

The lockdown officially started in France on St. Paddy’s Day and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Unlike the United States, the government here is taking this thing very seriously. If I want to go anywhere I have to carry a signed form, the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, describing the purpose of my travel. I can only go out for two reasons: to get needed supplies (thankfully they classified les tabacs as essential businesses) or for exercise within a one-kilometer radius of my home one hour per day. I am not allowed to visit my parents (Dad flew back from the States a couple of weeks ago after he watched a Trump press conference and decided he needed to get the hell out ASAP). The government has drones flying about to make sure people are following the rules (I haven’t seen one yet, probably because I don’t get out much). As I write this, the city issued a pronouncement that all Niçoise are required to wear masks outside; Mayor Estrosi said they’re going to distribute masks to every citizen in Nice.

Several of our clients have suspended consulting work to take care of their own, so we’re only working a few hours a day. This means I’ve got nothing to do but fuck, listen to music and watch classic baseball games (and a stray movie here and there). Under normal circumstances, I’d say, “Life is good.” But it’s not.

More and more people are getting sick and dying. My partner’s brother—the guy who scored the weed for us during the Psychedelic Series—came down with the virus, but it looks like he’s going to be okay. Still, his parents and siblings can’t visit him in the hospital, and many have died without ever seeing their loved ones again. He’s in Spain, where it’s pretty bad, and I’m about twenty kilometers from the Italian border, where it’s catastrophic.

I love The Twilight Zone, but I never wanted to live in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s creepy and depressing.

I grew up in a city and I’ve only lived in cities. Having lots of people around is my normal. I love the energy and spontaneity of street life. I love going out to dinner and hitting the bars and cafés where live music is played. The dead quiet of a city once filled with human movement and the buzz of human voices is intensely distressing for me, as I’m sure it is to all lifelong city-dwellers. But my low-level discomfort is nothing compared to the relentless anxiety of the people working in hospitals, markets and public services, so after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, I remind myself this is a battle for survival. If that means being cooped up in the house for a while, suck it up, girl.

I do have my daily routines to give me some sense of normal. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is head for the sound system and turn on some music. Usually I just shuffle songs and take my chances, but whether I was motivated by a forgotten dream or had received a coded message from the astral plane, on this particular day I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to A Love Supreme. And instead of following my usual M. O. of leaving the room and starting the coffee, I sat down in front of the speakers for the next thirty-three minutes, closed my eyes and let Coltrane’s beautiful music penetrate my soul. After the performance ended, I sat there for a while, feeling calmer and more grounded than I had in weeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw my partner sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, eyes closed, breathing yoga-style, a faint smile on her lips. I scooted over and we held each other for a while, whispering to each other, “It’s going to be okay.”

From that day forward, we have started every morning with A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto, presented in a suite consisting of four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,”  and “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter describes it in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the organization of the four sections “suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches and, eventually, celebrates what has been attained in song.” Given that model, most listeners can grasp Coltrane’s intent and follow the musical progression, but it’s equally important to understand how Coltrane connected spirituality with music:

My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing . . . My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity to free itself from its hangups. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.

—Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 232

While you may not have thought of music in that way, “to help humanity to free itself from its hangups” is at the core of most “anti-Establishment” music. When you belt out the lyrics to “Cretin Hop,” you’re helping to free yourself from the hangup of judgmental stereotypes; when you sing “It’s late and I want love—love that’s going to break me in two,” you’re ridding yourself of latent puritanism that infects most of the human species. One could argue that great music is “music that helps a person to clean out the noise and inauthenticity of modern life” (or, in a more pithy fashion, “clean out the bullshit”). The role of lyrics is more prominent in rock, blues or folk, but even if you’ve limited yourself to the more lyrical genres, you can relate to the largely instrumental orientation of jazz by recalling the feeling of liberation inspired by a Duane Allman guitar solo, or the playfully ominous licks of Muddy Waters, or the magical fingerpicking of Richard Thompson. The traditionally religious have understood the connection between music and spirituality for centuries; for me, listening to great music is a spiritual experience, whether I’m listening to the New York Dolls or Johann Sebastian Bach.

Porter’s study of Coltrane devotes an entire chapter to A Love Supreme, primarily focusing on the technical aspects of the composition: the dominance of the pentatonic scale and Coltrane’s variations on those scales; his use of overlapping disjunct and conjunct fourths; Coltrane’s techniques for building and releasing tension; the dominant rhythmic figures within the composition; and the wordless recitation of the psalm in the final section. His analysis is brilliant, insightful and impressive—to pull off the feat, he had to listen to the suite carefully and repeatedly, as Coltrane’s written instructions to his collaborators looked like this:

Coltrane provided the structure but not the details. He trusted his fellow musicians to fill in the blanks.

While I appreciate Porter’s effort and found it highly educational, he is a jazz scholar, and his narrative only makes sense to the few people left on the planet who know how to read music; for everyone else, it’s gibberish. Ted Gioia is one of the few musicologists who recognized this challenge; in the opening chapter of How to Listen to Jazz, he shares a parable of a “young scholar who decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms.” The scholar spent ten years in Africa immersed in his quest, but when he returned to the States and tried to teach some of his students how to play the Dagomba drums, ” . . . they ask him the simplest question of all: ‘How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?’ In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue.” The scholar finds himself unable to meet their apparently simple request. “No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. ‘The only way to begin correctly,’ he eventually discovers, ‘was to listen a moment and then start right in.'” Gioia wraps up the parable with the valuable lesson learned:

Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.

For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.

. . . In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song—no degrees or formal credentials required.

Gioia, Ted (2016-05-16T23:58:59). How to Listen to Jazz . Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (underlined emphasis added)

In keeping with that spirit, this review will focus more on the spirit than the details. I’ll refer to the technical stuff when I think it may be helpful.

1.  Acknowledgment

Coltrane’s acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power is a musical expression of spiritual awakening the mirrors the experience of physical awakening. The gentle gong that opens the suite feels like the moment when we wake from sleep; Elvin Jones’s cymbal washes meld with McCoy Tyner’s piano to create a sound that would make for a glorious accompaniment to a sunrise. Over that background, Coltrane’s tenor sax salvo sounds like the tentative engagement with consciousness we experience as we move from dream state to reality, perhaps accompanied by a nice long stretch after a good night’s sleep. As the notes fly from his sax and a pattern emerges, I’m reminded of those moments when I haven’t played in a while and I just randomly apply fingers to flute or piano without thinking about it or worrying about what might come out. The difference between my approach and Coltrane’s (beyond the vast difference in skill level) is that he views his instrument as a means of connecting with the higher power while I’m just trying to connect fingers to brain. If you heard my opening salvo, you’d say, “Oh, Ari is just warming up,” whereas with Coltrane’s you sense clarity and intent. As Porter points out, the segment serves as a lead-in to the suite, with the music based on E acting as the leading tone to the basic pentatonic F scale of the suite, solid evidence of a compositional objective.

Coltrane fades into background while Tyner and Jones build a mini-crescendo that fades with Jones providing a rapid-fire flourish on the cymbal bell. This cues Jimmy Garrison to enter with the bass ostinato that forms the suite’s dominant motif: a four-note pattern consisting of F, Ab, F, Bb in syncopated 4/4 time. This simple pattern serves as the foundation for a hip-engaging groove that might qualify as sinful in some churches but not in Coltrane’s. Tyner plays a dual role here—the chords he chooses to play anticipate Coltrane’s melody, but he also strengthens the groove to establish what Gioia describes as “rhythmic cohesion,” the defining characteristic of successful jazz. “In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition,” and as the suite moves forward, you appreciate just how much Coltrane trusted his supporting cast to supply that cohesion.

I hear Coltrane’s solo as his expression of engagement with the higher power, with emotions that range from reassuring calm to nearly inexpressible joy. The moments when he goes altissimo—pushing to the highest ranges of the tenor sax—feel like intense bursts of feeling that combine bottomless gratitude and genuine cherishment of the spiritual connection. As Porter notes, there are times when Coltrane drifts away from the base key as if he has entered a trance-like state, requiring Tyner and Garrison to improvise in kind. Having established his connection to the divine, Coltrane returns to the essential message contained in that four-note motif, transposing it to each of the twelve keys common to Western music, varying the register as he goes. Porter considers this transition “puzzling at first,” but what he means is that it’s puzzling in musical terms; it all becomes clear when we hear John Coltrane chanting the words “a love supreme,” and we realize that “Coltrane’s music is not abstract but is dictated in part by the messages he wishes to convey.” Theme resolved, Coltrane steps back while the music shifts to a soothing rhythm as Tyner then Jones exit the scene, leaving Jimmy Garrison to finish the piece. After repeating the motif a few times, he varies his run and ends his part with an almost classical flourish—a rare honor given to a double bass player and a satisfying conclusion that never fails to elicit a smile. In the process, Garrison changes keys to Eb, which will serve as the key for the second section.

2. Resolution

As befits the title, this section is played with greater intensity and resolve; now that the pilgrim has experienced the eternal truth, he solidifies his intent to live his life in devotion to the higher power. “Resolution” is a classic modern jazz composition with Coltrane taking two extended solos and Tyner one. In the first solo, Coltrane defines the dominant motif with its memorable two-note starting point (really the only thing it shares in common with the slower and bluesier “While My Lady Sleeps,” one of Coltrane’s early compositions that some believe is the original source), then proceeds to fly with utter confidence over the full-kit attack of Elvin Jones and comp chords from Tyner. The dynamics soften a bit when Coltrane hands off to Tyner, who knocks it out of the park with an amazing combination of bright chords and astonishingly clear runs that sometimes combine to create what I’ll call an “internal dialogue expressed in call-and-response mode,” where it seems like Tyner’s left hand makes a suggestion while the right hand responds to the challenge. Coltrane wakes Tyner from his trance by easing himself back into the picture and riffing off some of Tyner’s ideas before closing the piece with a return to the dominant theme. Porter notes that the improvisations are more free-form than tied to a particular scale and rely “similarly on much chromaticism and dissonance,” a feature that magnifies the tension evident in the sheer force of the piece.

Takeaway: Resolution is the emotional commitment that precedes the action; as such, the music to “Resolution” is intense, filled with the piss and vinegar that characterizes the vitality of intent.

3. Pursuance

As we all eventually figure out after the usual bumps and bruises, life isn’t always kind to those with resolve. “What else ya got?” yawns Life in response to our passionate certainty that we have found the answer. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad experienced much in the way of smooth sailing following their enlightenment, for when they actually started to act on their commitment to a higher truth, they wound up pissing off a whole lot of people with more mundane priorities and greater earthly power.

The omnipresent tension in “Resolution” climbs to a peak in “Pursuance,” an even more intense barrage played (mostly) at lightning speed. The piece kicks off with Elvin Jones soloing like a bat out of hell in no particular meter for ninety seconds when suddenly Coltrane steps in with a clarifying riff, which serves as a cue for Tyner and Garrison to join in. The new arrivals spend a few seconds feeling each other out before cohesion arrives in the form of an extended Tyner solo, where Garrison takes a couple of measures to sync with Jones but once he finds the groove, feels comfortable enough to throw in a few departures of his own. While the percussion section proper rides the high-speed wave, Tyner fills in the gaps with an assertive performance that combines velocity with soul-tingling clarity. When Coltrane returns a bit after the four-minute mark, he ignites a different level of passion with a quick burst of tonal clarity, earning a moment of thumping encouragement from Elvin Jones. Coltrane then dominates the scene for about three minutes, returning occasionally to altissimo as if attempting to reconnect with his original awakening. In the context of the pilgrimage described in A Love Supreme, “Pursuance” is the musical moment when the pilgrim’s ideals are challenged by the earthier noise of modern material existence; Coltrane’s exuberant journey here tells me he was up to the challenge.

One of my favorite passages in Porter’s book involves the analysis of the key of this section as defined as opposed to the key as manifested. Whenever I listen to an album I’m about to review, one of the first things I do is identify the key, and in 99% of the rock/pop music I’ve reviewed I can figure it out in about twenty seconds. I love it when I turn out to be wrong and have to dig deeper to figure it out. In this case, Coltrane didn’t give Porter much help, referring to the song as a minor blues in Bb. What Porter realized through deep listening is that while Coltrane used the notes in the Bb minor scale, he launched his solo from the starting point of C, using “the same scale in a different tonal framework.” Coltrane essentially took advantage of Charlie Parker’s discovery that any of the twelve notes that make up the chromatic scale can potentially take you melodically to any key, giving the soloist greater freedom in oscillating between consonance and dissonance. Translating all that into something more useful and connecting it to the substance of Coltrane’s extended solo, what I hear are the musical equivalents of laughter, of puzzlement, of reconnection with one’s mission, of the liberating, healing qualities of music. And though chromaticism can take you anywhere, Coltrane employs good compositional sense by resolving to Bb.

Interestingly enough, Coltrane chose to bookend this section with the percussionists, giving Garrison an extended solo at the end to complement Jones’ extended intro. Garrison’s bass solo is a bit longer than the drum solo and covers more ground, including a hint of the dominant four-note motif, a clearer expression of the blues scale and some marvelous departures from that scale. This feels to me like a segment highlighting both the existential loneliness of the journey (the double bass can be quite a melancholy instrument) and the firm belief that loneliness is merely a condition of material existence that will vanish once the connection to the higher spirit is complete.

4. Psalm

Coltrane claims in the liner notes that his awakening occurred in 1957; as noted in my review of Giant Steps, I hear evidence of that awakening on that album, which came out in 1960; A Love Supreme was released in late 1964. By this time he had finally a way to express his experience; “Psalm” is essentially the outcome of his spiritual journey, a celebration of the higher power and the essential unity enabled by that power.

Porter refers to “Psalm” as a “relatively calm postlude” in which Coltrane delivers a “wordless recitation” of the poem that appears in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Thankfully, Porter inserts the sheet music with the lyrics to the first lines of the poem to demonstrate how this works; the listener can take it from there.

What’s amazing about “Psalm” is how beautifully it flows without “a recurrent chord progression . . . not even a steady beat.” Even without those listening aids, a person hearing “Psalm” for the first time will notice echoes of the blues and gospel music, a feature that Porter was able to connect to the arched shape of each segment (“an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase”). While this may or may not represent a deliberate attempt on Coltrane’s part to mimic the melodically-tinged sermons of African-American preachers, I do agree with Porter’s observation that Coltrane’s focus was to express the meaning of every word in the psalm through music (“serene on the word ‘beautiful,’ shouting out ‘He will always be'”). You hear a range of moods in his “voice,” but the entire recitation reflects a passionate sincerity tempered by humility. You get the feeling that Coltrane wants all of us to have this kind of awakening, to share in his joy, to revel in the essential unity of all things.

His fellow musicians allow Coltrane to have his moment, filling the background with cymbal splashes, timpani, basic and contrasting piano chords and soft bass lines that never distract the listener from the sheer beauty—the sheer humanity—of Coltrane’s recitation. I find “Psalm” a remarkably soothing and reassuring piece, a perfect ending to the story of an authentic spiritual journey.

And I do believe his journey was authentic and real, despite my discomfort with his references to “God” in the poem and his classification of “God” as masculine. I relate far more easily to the language contained in the mission of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco: “To paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God.” And I really identify with the sentiments expressed in their coronavirus message explaining the suspension of weekly church services: “It has never been more crucial for humanity to attain to the blessed state of Coltrane Consciousness, and indeed the struggle continues!”

I don’t know if the pandemic will teach us to appreciate the wonder of life and draw closer to each other or will be exploited by those in power to further divide us. I could see it going either way—either the virus will expose current power structures as inefficient, wasteful and fraudulent, or the people in power will capitalize on our fears to hasten our self-destruction. All I know for certain is that we will be listening to A Love Supreme every morning long after the restrictions have been lifted to remind us that we are all of the same spirit.

Take care.

Frank Sinatra – In the Wee Small Hours – Classic Music Review

According to the Power Thesaurus, there are 1284 synonyms for the word “intensity,” and you could use almost any of them to describe Frank Sinatra.

One of Frank Sinatra’s most admirable qualities was his refusal to do anything half-assed. People who knew him often used the words “perfectionist” and “obsessive” to describe him, but those adjectives present a one-sided picture implying an ultimately positive result. It’s equally true that when Frank Sinatra fucked up, he totally fucked up. Reading his life story leads one to conclude that he was sent here on a mission to experience as much of life as he could at the highest possible level of intensity, good times and bad times alike.

Sinatra biographies tend to be far too gossipy for my tastes, and my first reaction when finishing one is to congratulate myself on never having had the slightest urge to become famous. The less personal reaction is sheer exhaustion. Sinatra was the human soul painted in colors so vivid and textures so rich that it’s almost impossible to believe that all the stories that make up his life narrative happened to one person, but they did. He experienced the pinnacle of success and the bottom of the barrel. He won an Oscar, eleven Grammies, three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Presidential Medal of Freedom; he also attempted suicide more than once.

The years 1949-1953 represented a period politely referred to as a “career slump,” when a combination of questionable choices and terrible publicity resulted in a severe decline in his popularity and the ultimate loss of his recording contract. At one point he was so broke he had to borrow $200K from his record company to pay back taxes. During this period he also experienced the death of his close friend and publicist, divorce from his first wife Nancy and almost immediate remarriage to Ava Gardner. Those are a lot of high-stress life events to pack into such a short period, so it’s no wonder that his career temporarily wound up in the crapper. But true to the words he would sing thirteen years later, “Each time I find myself flat on my face/I pick myself up and get back in the race.” Capitol Records took a flyer on Sinatra and signed him to a seven-year deal in early 1953; a few months later, From Here to Eternity would fill movie palaces all across the nation and Sinatra would be rewarded for his efforts with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor the following year. 1954 also saw the release of his first two albums for Capitol (Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy!), both of which were warmly received. In his first two years with Capitol, Sinatra released no less than eight Top 20 singles, indicating that all was forgiven as far as the listening audience was concerned.

The move to Capitol was critically important for two reasons. Capitol allowed Sinatra an unusual amount of artistic freedom in contrast to the more restrictive environment at Columbia, and he would now emerge as a man with a clear and expansive vision of the music he wanted to produce. Equally important was the pairing of Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, as magical a connection as The Beatles and George Martin. The two had worked together on his first two Capitol albums, which allowed Riddle to accustom himself to Sinatra’s unrelenting intensity and gave Sinatra a partner who could transform his intuitive and insightful visions into the series of truly remarkable musical arrangements you hear on In the Wee Small Hours.

In the Wee Small Hours is recognized as a concept album, one of the first attempts by an artist to use the long-playing format to explore a single, unified theme. The theme here is “lost love,” the mood is intensely introspective, and the guy only gets the girl in his wildest fantasies. It has been referred to by insiders as “the Ava album” because Sinatra was still grieving over the failure of his tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner. I don’t doubt the veracity of that assertion, but in terms of evaluating the artistic merit of In the Wee Small Hours, the backstory is a completely irrelevant distraction. The responsibility of the artist is to transform personal experience into universal experience, to move beyond self-absorbtion and express through art those aspects of individual experience that are shared by the other members of the human race. Loss of one’s partner is a sadly common human experience, but too many attempts to capture the essence of that experience cross the line into sentimental, boo-hoo, poor-me self-pity. What is remarkable about In the Wee Small Hours is how Sinatra and Riddle combine to create the purest expression of loss without intervening noise, making it possible for the listener to experience catharsis in relation to their own personal encounters with lost love. This is accomplished through Riddle’s sensitive and responsive arrangements and Frank Sinatra’s remarkable command of voice and lyrics, a hard-won skill that allowed him to transform songs into vivid, memorable human stories.

“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” opens the album, and the first instrument you hear is a celeste, a signal that we are about to enter a world of quiet reflection marked by feelings both tender and sad. Once the lush strings complete the opening passage and Sinatra steps up to the mike, you notice how the arrangement places Sinatra’s voice firmly in the front and center of the monaural soundscape. Sinatra insisted on supporting arrangements that gave him plenty of room to maneuver, and, as Riddle himself would admit, Sinatra consistently came up with the best approach for a given song. Here the string arrangement reflects a sense of tenuous stillness occasionally interrupted by bursts of emotion, indicating a restless sleep. The arrangement thoroughly complements Sinatra’s interpretation as he rides the shifting moods of reflection and emotion with perfect execution. He delivers the first verse in a rich but restrained voice, adding touch of tiredness to his delivery to reinforce the mood of a troubled late night. When he reaches the second verse, Sinatra expresses the emotions welling up inside through perfect phrasing and build; when he reaches the crucial phrase “if only,” he extends the notes and increases his volume so effectively that you can picture his formerly supine body twisting and turning in the darkness. He delivers the last line of the verse in a tone combining mournful regret and utter helplessness, so much so that you genuinely feel for the man:

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson
You’d be hers if only she would call
In the wee small hours of the morning
That’s the time you miss her most of all

The verse is repeated as the song comes to close, and Sinatra delivers that last line with a subtly quivering vibrato that feels like he would cry himself to sleep if he weren’t so tired. The song ends with a gentle repetition of the melody on the celeste, as if someone has tiptoed into the room and covered his tired body with a blanket. A three-minute masterpiece of song arrangement, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is also a masterclass in the vocal arts (as are many of the songs on this album).

Sinatra’s approach to Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is best appreciated by comparing it to the Ellington version that appears on Masterpieces by Ellington. Ellington didn’t choose Yvonne Luanauze (real name Eve Duke) as the band’s vocalist because she was a great singer, but because her mellow timbre was similar to the sound of a saxophone. Ellington’s focus was on the gestalt of an arrangement, how various sounds and timbres blend together into a coherent whole. The vocals on “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mood Indigo” sync perfectly with the band, but Luanauze’s rendering of the lyrics does little to excite the emotions. Having experienced several bouts of what we would call “clinical depression” during his down years, Frank Sinatra had first-hand experience with deep indigo moods and their terrifying power. What I key into are his two completely different approaches to the “no, no, no” lines, which in the context of the song are response lines to an invisible colleague who claims to have a bad case of the blues. In the first set Sinatra remains faithful to the notes on the page, but varies his tone on the second and third note to say, “Man, you really don’t know how bad it can get” in a faintly shaken tone as he momentarily relives the awful experience of the deep blues. In the second go-round, with the smaller supporting cast of musicians doing their best to mimic a big band sound, Sinatra extends the negative to a dozen repetitions, clearly telling his listener that he doesn’t have the slightest fucking idea what he’s talking about. Neither rendition crosses the line into “my pain is greater than your pain,” instead coming across as friendly advice from a guy who has real-life experience in the depths of darkness. While I love the ambience Ellington creates in his version, Sinatra’s interpretation feels more true-to-life.

“Glad to Be Unhappy” is a Rodgers and Hart number that didn’t exactly set the world on fire back in 1936 and was largely forgotten until Sinatra rescued it from oblivion. The introduction of celeste and bass is but a brief nod to thematic considerations, as Sinatra changes the mood in the introductory verses by delivering a semi-stern lecture to the face in the mirror, urging himself to accept fact over fantasy when it comes to love. When he shifts from near-monotone to a mini-crescendo to dramatize the cinematic fantasy implied by the lyrics, “Look at yourself, do you still believe the rumor/That romance is simply grand?” my heart just melts, especially with the elegant, elongated delivery of that oh-so sophisticated word, “grand.” Once the introduction is complete, the song shifts to a downtempo jazz combo number with a somewhat elaborate melody, modified slightly by Sinatra to sync with his read of the lyrics. Sinatra was never one to simply accept a score or lyrics as-is; his quest for perfection would not allow him to indulge in an off-the-shelf interpretation. Since he couldn’t read music in the conventional sense (but could follow the patterns on lead sheets), the lyrics served as his interpretational foundation. “I’ve always believed that the written word is first, always first,” he said. “Not belittling the music behind me, it’s really only a curtain. You must look at the lyric and understand it. Find out where you want to accent something, where you want to use a soft tone. The word actually dictates to you in a song, it really tells you what it needs.” That quote from James Kaplan’s The Chairman speaks volumes, for it highlights his unique ability to approach a song in a more organic fashion, where his choices to vary tone, syncopate, clip or elongate are firmly rooted in the human tale expressed in the lyrics.

“I Get Along Without You Very Well” is a Hoagy Carmichael number that has morphed into something of a jazz standard despite (or because of) its melodic origins in Chopin’s Fantaisie-impromptu in C sharp minor, Op 66. Since most classical music was written long before the first international copyright agreement in 1886, the great composers have provided many a songwriter with royalty-free opportunities to snatch a promising melody. A good way to prepare yourself for Sinatra’s interpretation is to first listen to Chet Baker’s take on Chet Baker Sings, which, oddly enough, is a more straightforward rendering of the piece. Sinatra’s version features gorgeous, interlocking interplay between strings and voice, as if the strings are responding to the tenor of Sinatra’s voice. That voice covers a lot of territory on the scale, and Sinatra’s voice is particularly beautiful on the elongated high notes.

My favorite song on In the Wee Small Hours is the least politically correct number on the album, as it celebrates the virtues of smoking cigarettes to facilitate self-reflection. This was, of course, normal behavior in the 1950’s, as seen in many movies and television programs of the era. Characters would take a break from the action to have a smoke and reflect on the plot line, or light up at the kitchen table when they needed to work out a particularly a thorny problem. Smoking was also something of an art form, as demonstrated by Rita Hayworth’s memorable door-opening scene in Gilda. Unlike today, where smoking almost automatically identifies a character as an evil villain, both good guys and bad guys smoked, and while sinister meanings were occasionally attached to a female character who puffed on a Lucky, female smoking had the titillation factor going for it, which served to neutralize any ill will a viewer may have felt. Since I always disclose the biases of which I am aware, I will happily admit that I smoke cigarettes and couldn’t give a fuck what people think.

Shame me all you want, your health nazi invective will bounce harmlessly off my secure and comfortable psyche.

Written by long-time Sinatra pal Jimmy Van Heusen in conjunction with lyricist Eddie DeLange, “Deep in a Dream” conjures up the figure of a man who has dimmed the lights and lit a cigarette as he considers his lost love:

I dim all the lights and I sink in my chair
The smoke from my cigarette climbs through the air
The walls of my room fade away in the blue
And I’m deep in a dream of you

Riddle balances the strings with horns and an occasional fluttering flute to illustrate the multiple moods on this piece, an innovative score that responds immediately to Sinatra’s emotions. Sinatra begins the verses in the lower part of the register, moving smoothly through the melodic peaks of the third line before descending to the lows to close the verse and enter the dream world. Like clouds in the sky, smoke moves in mysterious ways, with strands turning into shapes that resemble objects in the real world. The modern instinct in responding to the second verse would be to say, “Wow! This would make one seriously cool music video,” but really folks, your imagination will work just fine:

The smoke makes a stairway for you to descend
You come to my arms, may this bliss never end
For we’ll love anew just as we used to do
When I’m deep in a dream of you

I imagine the woman in a sparkling, shape-fitting gown, perfectly coiffed with long curled tresses falling on her bare shoulders . . . but since my image of “love anew” is too kinky for the reading audience, I’ll let you fill in the rest of the blanks. Sinatra’s voice intensifies with excitement in this verse, sweetening the word “bliss” with a combination of joy and relief. In the bridge, he imagines music coming from the ceiling and the couple does what all couples did in the good old days when they heard music—they dance! Alas, this beautiful scene cannot last forever,  and the whole thing . . . goes up in . . . smoke (sorry):

My cigarette burns me, I wake with a start
My hand isn’t hurt, but there’s pain in my heart
Awake or asleep, ev’ry mem’ry I’ll keep
Deep in a dream of you

Riddle inserts a brief horn response to the phrase “wake with a start,” reflecting that “What? What the hell? Where the fuck am I?” moment when our slumber is cruelly interrupted. On the final “of you,” Sinatra plummets to the lowest note he can handle, his voice quivering slightly in response to the stretch, but miraculously coming back full force when he is free to rise to the more comfortable note above, which he holds for a healthy stretch in the fade. Sinatra’s breath control was legendary, a skill developed through hard work and supported by frequent morning swims in the ocean, and not harmed in the least by his consistent consumption of Camels . . . so there! “Deep in a Dream” is an imaginative demonstration of the virtues of poetic economy, beautifully delivered by a master storyteller and supported by an equally masterful arranger.

The fantasizing continues with “I See Your Face Before Me,” which begins with a lovely swirl of flute, woodwinds and strings creating a dream-like environment. This piece tends to favor Riddle’s Fantasia-reminiscent arrangement over Sinatra’s vocal, which makes sense when you consider it was the first song Nelson Riddle arranged, way back in 1938. Still, Sinatra is marvelous, smoothly and sensitively guiding the song with a tone of wondrous attachment to the lovely vision that refuses to vacate his consciousness.

The firmly-strummed Spanish guitar that opens “Can’t We Be Friends” gives Sinatra a cue to ramp up the assertiveness level, and he delivers the opening line, “I took each word she said as gospel truth” as if he’s sharing his frustration with a buddy over a Jack Daniels (3 rocks, two fingers) at Toots Shor’s. He then descends to the bottom of his range to confess his own stupidity: “The way a silly little child would.” The intro leads into a soft jazz arrangement featuring George Van Eps on guitar and Paul Smith on celeste; meanwhile, Sinatra plays the part of chump to perfection, keeping his voice a touch on the ragged side to express a sense of emotional exhaustion. The verses repeat the lyrical story in different words (I believed her, what a dope), but my favorite is the last verse with its more colloquial language:

I thought I’d found the gal I could trust
What a bust, this is how the story ends
She’s gonna turn me down and say
“Can’t we be just friends ?”

“Just friends” and the antidote “cold shower” go back a long way; the song originally appeared in a 1929 musical. However, the “Can’t we be friends” routine is not exclusively limited to male victims, as Ella Fitzgerald confirmed in her covers of the song (one solo, one with Satchmo). The difference is in the response: a cold shower may cool off a ready-to-explode penis, but it only makes our nipples harder.

That’s why they invented vibrators!

Whether it was due to self-induced tension or a triggering memory of Ava Gardner, Sinatra broke down crying after the master take of “When Your Lover Has Gone.” The song itself has an unusual structure with an intro and two short verses that contain a relatively weak refrain, but Sinatra cared more about lyrics than structure, and it’s easy to imagine him falling apart after delivering that last brief verse:

What lonely hours, the evening shadows bring
What lonely hours, with memories lingering
Like faded flowers, life can’t mean anything
When your lover has gone.

Riddle pauses the background music for a split-second before the verse to give Sinatra some space, and when you hear his voice emerge from the silence, you notice it is filled with emotion he can barely contain. He lingers over each word, as if considering the meaning of each one . . . “lonely” . . . “hours” . . . “memories” . . . until he launches into the crescendo of the third line, his voice rising in volume and pitch, in a tone that sounds as if he is resisting every move forward to avoid having to accept the truth in the cold closing line: “When your lover is gone.” This is clearly one of Sinatra’s most powerful performances, and his ability to maintain musical discipline while recalling deeply painful memories is the mark of the ultimate professional. In the hands of most singers, this song would easily turn into a melodrama; with Sinatra, it is a noble, cathartic tragedy.

Side Two opens with what I personally consider to be one of Cole Porter’s weaker numbers, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” I’m definitely in the minority here, as the song has been recorded again and again by everybody who is anybody, but the absence of wit and wordplay that characterized Porter’s more mature works creates too much of an obstacle for me to overcome. Sinatra almost deconstructs the song by slowing the tempo considerably; most of the versions I’ve heard (Ella, Red Garland, Clifford Brown and Max Roach) are fast and snappy. Riddle intensifies the question mark in the song’s title though a clarinet that sounds perfectly film noir, and Sinatra’s tone is one of genuine wonderment. I’m also not particularly fond of “Last Night When We Were Young,” one of Judy Garland’s favorites, but I’ll give Sinatra and Riddle credit for making the song far more interesting with a marvelous build leading to Sinatra’s climactic held note.

The celeste returns for “I’ll Be Around,” where Sinatra places himself in the role of noble hanger-on, and despite his reputation as a tough guy, he approaches the part with perfect humility. Even when the song gives him several chances to overdramatize a held note, he restrains himself, making the lines “Perhaps you’ll see/You were meant for ME” all the more poignant. Though I can’t get my head around the concept of waiting around for someone who obviously doesn’t want you simply because YOU have decided she’s the one for you, I’ll exercise the same restraint Sinatra did and tell you that his version of “I’ll Be Around” is both charming and well-acted.

In my research for this review, I stumbled across an article on Vail Jazz titled, “Was Sinatra a jazz singer?” The author answered the question strongly in the affirmative, but I was surprised to learn that the issue was in doubt. Of course he was! And one of the best! Having already solidified his jazz cred here with “Mood Indigo,” he gets another chance to demonstrate his chops in “Ill Wind,” a Harold Arlen jazz classic first performed at the Cotton Club in 1934. Riddle sets the stage by using woodwinds to create a sense of dark mystery, cueing Sinatra to intensify the mood through blue notes and off-beat phrasing. His mood oscillates between vulnerability and mustered strength, coloring the song in hues of deepest blue. Harry Edison from the Count Basie Orchestra delivers a trumpet solo that could have served as the theme music for the album cover, capturing that late night loneliness after all your best lines and generosity with the booze have failed to pierce the hearts of the opposite sex and now you’re too broke to call a taxi.

We’re now presented with back-to-back Rodgers and Hart numbers, the first featuring Sinatra in the role of oblivious mate. “It Never Entered My Mind” features an elegant, restrained arrangement featuring French horns, flute and strings. Sinatra sounds like a man who is stunned to find himself alone, but the most interesting aspect of the song is his interpretation of the bridge:

You had what I lack myself,
Now I even have to scratch my back myself.

Most versions deliver the lines straight, imbuing the words with a semi-humorous veneer. Sinatra takes that second line and turns it into something richer: the moment where the guy finally and fully understands that he is now utterly alone:

Now I even have to scratch my back . . . . . . . myself.

That long pause speaks volumes, as does the tortuous delivery that precedes it. With one brilliant phrasing decision, Sinatra transforms the song into an indictment of routine in relationships and a moment of hard revelation . . . a striking example of his ability to discern the subtext behind the lyrics.

Instead of a woman gliding gracefully down a smoky stairway, we now encounter a woman dancing on the ceiling in defiance of the laws of gravity. Despite the scientific absurdity, “Dancing on the Ceiling” is a delightful little number with a suitably whimsical arrangement integrating celeste, piano and guitar. Sinatra is in fine form, singing on and off the beat, shaping the placement of the lyrics to the feel of the song and displaying again his thoroughly remarkable breath control. On the last line of the bridge, he holds the note on “there” all the way through the first line of the last verse without a discernible drop in power or expressiveness in his delivery. I’d use the word “breathtaking” to describe that passage, but that would be both obvious and the worst pun I’ve ever written, so I’ll slip into advocacy mode and urge every singer in any genre to study Frank Sinatra’s vocal techniques.

The one song where I think Riddle’s arrangement is off is “I’ll Never Be the Same,” a song that began life as an instrumental with the cutesy-wutesy title “Little Buttercup” but morphed into something heavier once Gus Kahn added the lyrics. The problem I have with the arrangement is the use of the flute, and coming from someone who’s been blowing flutes (and other long hard instruments) since she was eight (make that fourteen for other long hard instruments), that’s what I call a pretty damning indictment! Specifically, the flute flurries here call up images of pleasant spring days when butterflies and birds glide over the warming breeze. Unfortunately, the lyrics describe a dark existential crisis where the narrator observes “And when the songbirds that sing/Tell me it’s spring/I can’t believe their song.” 86 the goddamn flutes and give me a goddamn cello! Sinatra tries his best to make it work, but even great singers lack the power to overcome an out-of-sync arrangement that contradicts the main story line.

The closing track finds Sinatra revisiting a tune he recorded with Tommy Dorsey and the Pied Pipers back in 1941, “This Love of Mine.” This is the only song on In the Wee Small Hours where Sinatra receives songwriting credit, having written the lyrics. The song was definitely in need of a refresh, as the original reveals a rather stiff Sinatra who still had a long way to go to master syncopation and conversational phrasing: he hits all the notes, on time, in sync, and oh my, the result is really, really boring. Fortunately for history, Frank Sinatra was a lifelong learner dedicated to continuous self-improvement:

“Syncopation in music is important, of course, particularly if it’s a rhythm song,” Sinatra said. “It can’t be ‘one-two-three-four/one-two-three-four’ because it becomes story. So, syncopation enters the scene, and it’s ‘one-two,’ then maybe a little delay, and then ‘three,’ and then another longer delay, and then ‘four.’ It all has to do with delivery.”

—excerpt from The Chairman by James Kaplan

In the updated version, Sinatra’s phrasing is more relaxed, reflective and natural, giving the lyrics far more weight than was apparent in his rather formal recital in the original. The most noticeable difference can be found in the delivery of the line, “Since nothing matters, let it break” (referring to his heart). In the original, the pause indicated by the comma is just that: a short break in the flow before Sinatra sings the notes on time, like a good boy should. In the revised version, the comma turns into incredibly long ellipsis, amplifying the meaning of “let it break” to something stronger—more like “Let the world go to hell, I’m done.” There are numerous subtle differences between the two versions that demonstrate Sinatra’s progress from apprentice to master, and re-recording this number must have been an ironically triumphant moment for him—ironic because it took fourteen years and too many failed relationships for Sinatra to grasp the real meaning of the words he himself had written.

Riddle’s arrangement here is as perfect as perfect gets, a supportive background dominated by rich, tempered strings with a touch of celeste. In a masterstroke, Riddle ends the song that ends the album with the instrument that introduced the album: the celeste. What we hear is a rising figure that seems to fade naturally, like the sound of wind chimes, reinforcing the musical and emotional themes while adding a gentle reminder of the transitory nature of human feelings and human life.

In the Wee Small Hours ushered in a period where Sinatra could do no wrong, collaborating with Riddle to produce a string of universally acknowledged masterpieces of the vocal arts. After a brief pause in the action during his transition from musician-under-contract to record company mogul, Sinatra would hit another peak period in the mid-60’s with different collaborators (including daughter Nancy). He continued recording and performing well into the 1990’s, constantly refusing to roll up into a big ball and die.

In my promo tweet for this review, I described Sinatra as “the most American singer of them all.” I said that because his life story embodies the full range of the American experience, and the contradictions in his personality are uniquely American. He was the Horatio Alger hero, the guy from Hoboken with no connections who worked his way to the top—and sometimes his legendary ambition led him to step on others to get what he wanted. His equally legendary temper led him to respond violently to provocations—but he was also one of the first to celebrate diversity in song and to use his privilege and influence to demand that Vegas hotels and restaurants serve black customers. At the beginning of the 1950’s he existed in the living hell of depression and with the embarrassment of commercial failure—but by the end of the decade, he was the top recording artist in the world and a major box office star. Frank Sinatra was the ultimate rugged individualist who could never quite get rid of the chip on his shoulder, but he balanced that with a strong streak of generosity and a willingness to help others who were getting screwed by the system. He loved hard, hated hard, partied hard and worked hard. He was the personification of intense.

Individualism, competitiveness, generosity, the drive for success, the violent tendencies, the rise, the fall, the comeback—Sinatra was a man who integrated American myths and many of the characteristics of the American hero into his personality. But what makes In the Wee Small Hours so very special in addition to its beautiful arrangements and stunning vocals is that Frank Sinatra had the courage to shatter one of those myths: the myth that boys don’t cry, the myth that men dare not display vulnerability or weakness. The truly great Americans were people who broke boundaries, and through a combination of emotional honesty, artistic excellence and a vision of the possibilities inherent in the long-play format, Frank Sinatra broke cultural and artistic boundaries with In the Wee Small Hours.

Americans! If you’re going to celebrate anything on the Fourth of July, celebrate Frank Sinatra, a truly great American.

Sadly, this is my last review of American artists for the foreseeable future. You can read why I made that choice here

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