Richard Nisley


Frank Sinatra gets with the Basie Program – 3 albums/3reviews
Pop Culture Released - Nov 25, 2019
When Frank Sinatra formed his own record label, he planned to continue his fruitful association with Nelson Riddle; there was one insurmountable problem, however: Riddle was under exclusive contract to Capitol Records. Sinatra went looking for an arranger with Riddle's versatility and found journeyman Neal Hefti, known for his swing arrangements for the Count Basie Orchestra. No problem as Sinatra planned to record several swing albums, one or two with the esteemed Basie.

(1) SINATRA & SWINGIN' BRASS (released July 1962)

This exuberant song collection is a warmup for what was to come–two collaborative albums with the Count Basie Orchestra. On this recording Sinatra pays tribute to the music of the big-band era, with tunes associated with Benny Goodman (“Goody, Goody”), Duke Ellington (“I’m Beginning to See the Light”), Jimmy Dorsey (“Tangerine”) and Glenn Miller (“Serenade in Blue”). The recording sessions were originally scheduled for three nights, but Sinatra was in such fine voice that he cancelled the third session, and recorded all twelve songs in two revved-up evenings. Standout cuts are by three of Sinatra's favorite songwriters: Cole Porter (“At Long Last Love,” “I Get A Kick out of You,” and “I Love You”), George Gershwin (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”) and Jerome Kern (“Pick Yourself Up”). In an era when albums were getting shorter and shorter (30 minutes at best), Sinatra and Hefti cut loose for 40 minutes. As Sinatra was wont to say at the time, Ring-a-ding, ding!

(2) SINATRA -BASIE (December 1962)

“I’ve waited 20 years for this moment,” Sinatra said of making a record with Count Basie. It would be the first of three team-ups with jazz’s preeminent swing orchestra that finds the singer getting with the Basie program in a big way. Indeed, working with Sinatra took Basie's drummer Sonny Payne to a higher level: “Sinatra is the only singer who makes me want to swing,” he said afterward. Most of the tunes were remakes of songs Sinatra had previously recorded for Capitol Records. No matter—with the Count's inspired players at maximum tilt, the songs sounded fresh and new all over again. Neal Hefti, who did the charts for “Sinatra & Swingin’ Brass,” wrote the uptempo arrangements. The downside was the album's relatively short length, having only ten cuts at a time when 12 songs was the industry norm. Those wanting more Sinatra-Basie would have to wait another two years for the next Sinatra-Basie installment, “It Might As Well Be Swing.” The third and final Sinatra-Basie meeting would be captured live in Vegas, in 1966, entitled “Sinatra at the Sands.”

(3) SINATRA-BASIE: IT MIGHTS AS WELL BE SWING (August 1964)

A lot had happened since the first Sinatra-Basie meeting, made evident on this album, which is comprised of covers of other singers’ recent hits, and with the addition of strings on four cuts, to give a more commercial feel to the album. Making records is an art but first and foremost it is a business. The record label must make money, and the profit-loss statement at Sinatra’s record label was bleeding red ink. If Reprise Records was going to stay in business it needed to worry less about art and more about sounding commercial. Thus, when Frank Sinatra and arranger Quincey Jones sat down to create a playlist, the song selection boiled down to 10 songs that were top-ten hits by other artists: among them, “Wives and Lovers” (Jack Jones), “More” (Steve Lawrence), “Hello, Dolly” (Louis Armstrong), “Fly Me to the Moon” (Joe Harnell), “I Wish You Love” (Keely Smith), “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Ray Charles), and three that were hits for Tony Bennett (“I Wanna Be Around,” “The Good Life” and “The Best is yet to Come”).

Like so many other arrangers employed by Sinatra, Jones was under the gun to come up with the charts in a big hurry and needed help; he recruited Billy Byers who’d helped him a year earlier with “This Time By Basie.” Who composed what isn’t entirely clear, but the results suited the Sinatra-Basie II project perfectly. The first of the three sessions—the only one without strings—was the strongest and resulted in the most satisfying cuts, notably “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Best is yet to Come,” “Wives and Lovers," "I Believe in You," and "I Wanna Be Around." (The tasty trumpet flourishes that are so much a part of this and other Sinatra swing albums are by sly, artful Harry "Sweets" Edison). The rest of the LP is more commercial sounding but no less hard swinging. “It Might As Well Be Swing” was the first Sinatra album comprised entirely of hits by other recording artists, and a sign of things to come, with Sinatra turning more and more to new, youth-oriented songs to sell records. That said, this swingin' set of covers is the only one to rate as a Sinatra classic.

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