Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Frank Sinatra and Neal Hefti Swing with Brass, 1962

Since 2015 has marked Frank Sinatra's centennial, which was duly celebrated throughout the year in the mass media, it seems only fitting to end the year with a post about the Chairman of the Board, and more specifically about one of those albums he recorded in the 1960s that often get lost in the mix when it comes to discussing his contribution to 20th-century popular music. Sinatra and Swingin' Brass, released in 1962 on his own label, Reprise Records, represents Sinatra's first full-length collaboration with arranger Neal Hefti, who had worked intermittently with the singer in the previous ten years but hadn't had the chance to arrange a whole album for Sinatra before. This was Sinatra's fifth Reprise project, and like other records he cut for the label (Ring-a-Ding-Ding and I Remember Tommy, for instance) it constitutes a look back at the big band days, with powerful, swinging arrangements that favor uptempo numbers over ballads. This is evident from the opening track, a jumpy take on "Goody Goody" that features some exciting drumming from Earl Palmer. The arrangement of this song is precisely the one Sinatra used on live appearances from this period like the one captured on the CD Sinatra and Sextet Live in Paris. Looking through the track listing, the only slow song on the LP is "Serenade in Blue," and even here the tempo builds up steadily, and it turns out to be quite a danceable reading of the old Mack Gordon and Harry Warren standard.

Neal Hefti and Frank Sinatra in the studio in the 1960s
Sinatra also seems interested in updating some of the tunes he'd already recorded for Capitol with Nelson Riddle, such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "At Long Last Love," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Hefti does an excellent job reinventing Riddle's familiar arrangements without ever sounding like Riddle, which is indeed a difficult task, and "Kick" is punctuated by a lovely alto sax solo that probably comes courtesy of Joe Maini. Tenor saxophone legend Ben Webster also contributes a characteristically classy solo to Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light," but it's much too brief and makes us wish that someone had seen fit to feature Webster more prominently on these sessions. In hindsight, of course, it's baffling to consider that nobody thought of that at the time. Sinatra runs through "Tangerine," a song often recorded by different bands during the Swing Era and before, in an appropriately light-hearted sort of way, and "Ain't She Sweet" is a fine example of Hefti's inventive arranging inspiring Sinatra to play around with the melody and the inconsequential lyrics, something that he also does on "Love Is Just Around the Corner." In an album in which most tracks clock in at under three minutes, "Don'cha Go 'Way Mad" is one of the longest arrangements and to my ears perhaps one of the least interesting, maybe because the song isn't one of the strongest in the set. Hefti makes Cole Porter's "I Love You" swing lightly at the beginning, but then towards the end, Sinatra comes back to drive the song home with a bang. "Pick Yourself Up" is a fitting closing track for the album, and here Sinatra seems to be having fun with Hefti's attractive chart until he finally decides that he's had enough and actually ends the record by jokingly saying so. It wouldn't take too long for Hefti to work with Sinatra again: just a few months later they were back in the studio together, along with the Count Basie Orchestra, to record Sinatra-Basie, but this first collaboration between the two, although perhaps not as well known as the album with Basie, is full of the same kind of excitement that Hefti helped create for the Basie band of the Atomic period and should be celebrated as one of Sinatra's best outings of his Reprise years.

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