Don't let the boyish good looks and boundless energy fool you; Michael Feinstein is rapidly approaching two silver milestones. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the four time Grammy nominee's professional debut; and Feinstein's forthcoming album, The Sinatra Project, due September 2 from Concord Records, will be his 24th release (and eighth since joining the label in 1998).
Arguably the world's foremost, and certainly the most passionate and indefatigable, anthropologist and archivist of the Great American Songbook, Feinstein has dedicated his career to preserving, protecting and promoting the work of the great tunesmiths, ranging from household names like Gershwin, Porter and Berlin to such lesser-known craftsmen as Hugh Martin and Burton Lane. It's no wonder that the Library of Congress invited him to serve on its elite National Sound Recording Advisory Board.
The Sinatra Project, Feinstein's first recorded tribute to another performer, takes his dynamic career in an exciting new direction. As for his choice of subject, Feinstein explains that, "Sinatra considered himself, first and foremost, an interpreter of song, and his influence on other entertainers is incalculable. He has become so thoroughly entrenched in the history of American popular song that it is impossible to open your mouth and sing without his influence being part of that."
Unlike a myriad of others who have shaped Sinatra tributes, Feinstein had no desire to "literally copy what he did. I have a different point of view. I was interested in reflecting his taste in music. I wanted to create an album that would explore his style of singing and his style of music. The actual swing sound we attribute to Sinatra was created by Nelson Riddle. They consciously decided, at one point in the early 1950s, that they were going to create a new sound and a new way to interpret these songs. It's a sound that reflects a certain era, even though it was only part of that era, and I find it fascinating that it has transcended the time in which it was created to become almost a generic sound. So, this album is not only a tribute to Sinatra, but also to his collaborators: to Nelson Riddle, and also to Billy May, Axel Stordahl and the dozens of other musicians with whom he worked through the years, from Count Basie to Quincy Jones, Don Costa, Skip Martin, Johnny Mandel, etc."
In excavating the Sinatra songbook, Feinstein and producer/arranger/conductor Bill Elliott decided it would be interesting to reinterpret certain tunes as Riddle or May might have done them. Most notable is "Begin the Beguine," which Sinatra recorded in 1946 with Stordahl, now refitted by Feinstein and Elliot into a swinging Riddle groove. "The style of the track," says Feinstein, "is an homage to Nelson's ‘I've Got You Under My Skin.' It was great fun to do that because people will think they've heard it before, even though it's brand new."
For the album's opener, Feinstein and Elliott chose "Exactly Like You" by Sinatra's good friend, Jimmy McHugh, who also wrote the score for Sinatra's first featured film role, in 1944's Higher and Higher, and penned several major hits for him. So, says Feinstein, "because Sinatra was so strongly associated with him, I thought it would be fun to take another McHugh song and Billy May-ize it. "Exactly Like You" has a certain energy that lends itself to this conceit, which made it irresistible. When Bill asked what I wanted to do with the song, I said, ‘Billy May - the slurping saxes,' and he immediately captured the Billy May style."
Considering that, as Feinstein observes, "Sinatra's influence on American popular music is probably more thoroughly documented than any other entertainer," it's hard to imagine there could be anything new to be mined from the Sinatra archives. But leave it to Feinstein to unearth two priceless nuggets. The first is a lilting ballad called "How Long Will It Last," which Feinstein says he first knew of "from a Joan Crawford recording. In 1931, she made a record of "How Long Will It Last" which was never released. Being an inveterate collector, I somehow got a copy if it. It wasn't particularly interesting, because she was not a great singer; but I've never forgotten the song. Then, my friend Chuck Granata told me Sinatra had recorded a song called "How Long Will It Last." I wondered, ‘Is it possible it's the same song that Crawford recorded?' He got me a copy of the unreleased track, done by Sinatra with Xavier Cugat's orchestra in 1947 or '48. It's a Latin track, and Sinatra gets irritated about something in the middle of it. Something goes wrong, and he says ‘Get me the hell out of here!,' and they never fixed it, never did another take. He purposefully aborts it because it's clear he doesn't want it used."
For his version, Feinstein "wanted to do something that reflected Sinatra's 1940s recordings with Axel Stordahl and evoke that era. I approached Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini about doing a collaboration, and he was very enthusiastic about it. To me, Pink Martini is one of the great modern interpreters of world music and this particular style. I sent him the two recordings of Joan Crawford and Sinatra. He called back and said, ‘How about doing it a little slower, as maybe a Cuban mambo sorta thing.' So, I flew up to Portland and we did it live, all in one room. We evolved the arrangement that Thomas had worked out, and China Forbes, their vocalist, and I started doing takes. By the fifth take we thought we'd nailed it. Stylistically, it is something that's closest to Sinatra's '40s efforts."
The other lost gem, "The Same, Hello, the Same Goodbye," comes from the husband-and-wife team of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, one of Sinatra's favorite songwriting teams throughout the latter half of his career. "The Bergmans worked a lot with Frank," says Feinstein. "He used to call them ‘the kids.' Sinatra first met them when they wrote "Nice 'n' Easy" for him on spec. One day they got a call from Frank, asking if they could write what he called a "performance piece" for him... So they got together with John Williams and wrote this four-section piece. When they finished, Sinatra told them to come to Palm Springs. There was Williams at the piano and Alan singing, and when they finished Sinatra was sobbing. He said, ‘Jesus, how do you know so much about my life?' and Marilyn laughed and said, ‘As if your life is a closed book!' Sinatra kept saying, ‘I'm going to learn that thing, it's fantastic,' but he never did. So, when I was putting this recording together, I called Alan and Marilyn and asked about the piece. Alan was a little cagey about it. They kept me on tenterhooks.... [But] I kept after them, and finally Alan said, ‘come over.' They'd extracted one of the songs. I sat down and read through the lead sheet, and was deeply moved by it. About three weeks later, I recorded it with Alan in the studio to make sure I did it to their satisfaction."
When the suggestion is made to Feinstein that he sounds extremely loose and relaxed throughout the entire album, he acknowledges that, "In a certain way, I am. Sinatra had a very distinctive style of phrasing that has been picked up by a lot of people in conscious imitation, but it's more difficult to generally evoke his style. I listened to a lot of his records, paying attention to how he phrased, not to do a carbon copy but to get a proper sense of it. One thing his did was to backphrase just a little bit. Often he'd be right on the beat, but sometimes he backphrased. Today, the tendency of singers is to backphrase a lot. Extreme backphrasing has evolved through the decades and makes the songs sound more contemporary, for me in a detrimental way, because when you backphrase a lot and slow up the tempo, it affects the overall texture of the song."
To ensure the precise sound they wanted, Feinstein and Elliott opted to record the bulk of The Sinatra Project inside fabled Capitol Studio A in Los Angeles. "It is an extraordinary place," enthuses Feinstein. "It is still one of the best studios in the world and one of the last surviving ones. I think of all the great singers who, in addition to Sinatra, have recorded there, including Nat Cole, Peggy Lee and Judy Garland."
Feinstein and Elliott's goal was to get "as close as we could to the early stereo sound on those Capitol records. There was a certain kind of clarity and simplicity in the sound that is missing today; because bands are now miked quite differently than they were in the '50s. When I listen to pop recordings of these standards, the first thing I hear is an antiseptic sound in the bass and drums. That's usually a giveaway that it's a newer recording, because the classic recordings had the drums live in the room with the rest of the instruments and there was bleed into the rest of the microphones. Nobody does that anymore, because they're so afraid of the drums overpowering the rest of the section. Recording has become a victim of technology in that the overall sound isn't as warm and cohesive, or perhaps as honest. [For The Sinatra Project sessions] everybody was in one room, except me. I was in a booth, as Sinatra was. It took us about 40 minutes to balance the live sound. It was very exciting, [even though] the musicians were a little doubtful at first. It's something I've wanted to do for years but no one would let me. Bill has wanted to do it, too. When I first recorded with Bill back in 1995, we talked about doing this, but no one would let us. But with him being the producer as well as the arranger on this album, he said, ‘We're going to do it this way.' Everyone went along with it, and once it started coming together everybody got very excited because there was that early '50s transparent stereo sound that gave a sheen to the music."
Further extending the album's connections to the past, Feinstein wanted to honor the Sinatra tradition of adding special lyrics to songs, often written for him by Sammy Cahn. "Sammy was amazing," says Feinstein. "He was a very good friend. He would write special material for hundreds of people and always did it for free. He said, ‘If I charged you, you couldn't afford me.' He did it time and time again for Frank." Eager to echo Cahn's gifted way with words, Feinstein chose to add lyrics to "At Long Last Love." It is, he says, "the kind of song that lends itself to parody. Cole Porter set the form and, over the years, many people have toyed with the words. Several years ago my friend Marshall Barer, who was a particular fan of Porter's work, wrote extra lyrics as an homage to him. Because Sinatra was closely associated with Cole Porter, and reinterpreted him in ways that sometimes pleased Porter and sometimes angered him, it seemed a good way to close the album and also to create more of a theatrical ending."