Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

With a Song in My Heart: U is for…

“Unforgettable” – Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, 1991.

Duet – from the Latin “duo,” meaning two, and the Italian “duetto,” a short composition for two voices.  Yet just because you can combine two voices doesn’t necessarily mean those voices are meant to go together.  Blending a pair of distinct tones can create either a transcendent melody, or an unendurable cacophony.  Some seem meant for each other, while others will remain as incompatible as oil and water, no matter how vigorously they are mixed.  So does the same seem to be said for human connections.  We are forever trying to combine our voice with that of another, to see if we can create music.  We’ve had the first dates that peal like delicate glass bells, and frustratingly, as they become relationships, evolve over weeks and months to a conclusion as sour and clunky as an out-of-tune piano.  We rewind to the start and sing the first bars again with a new partner, and hope that this time we can sustain the harmony.  Often we go through a lot of bad songs before we create the right one.

“Unforgettable” was first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1951, and again in 1961.  The latter version was edited and remixed (and supplemented with a saxophone solo) to create a duet with his grown daughter 26 years after his death.  What could be accomplished today relatively easily with home audio software was revolutionary in 1991, and remains haunting still.  Determined to carve out her own way in the business, Natalie Cole had long refused to cover her father’s hits, but finally relented, and “Unforgettable” was the crown on Unforgettable… with Love, which featured twenty-two of the elder Cole’s standards and won the Grammy for Album of the Year.  The idea of duets crafted in the editing room spread to Frank Sinatra’s people, who famously released an entire album full of them the following year (to massive sales, but just as much criticism that Frank hadn’t actually met anyone he was singing with).  What the Sinatra album lacked, and what any great duet needs, is chemistry.  That concept remains resistant to definition; like a paraphrasing of the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark, you just know it when you see it, or feel it.  Though he had died when she was only fifteen, Nat King Cole’s voice had a chemistry with his adult daughter’s that sounded as though this electronically-forged duet was always intended to be.

“Unforgettable” has come to call to mind two distinct periods in my life.  When it first came out it was one of those favorite songs of my grandmother’s, played up at the cottage as twilight stole the sun behind the island across the lake.  I recall one evening my sister and I crouching behind a couch, pressing play and having a couple of stuffed animal puppets lip-synch it for the amusement of the rest of the family.  Occasionally, we’d sing it for real, with squeaky young voices matching the notes but none of the emotion; reciting syllables with mechanical intonations.  At that age, all you can do is imitate.  You haven’t lived enough or felt enough to understand what songs like this are meant to evoke.  Years, a few girlfriends and episodes of heartbreak later, “Unforgettable” came to mean something else.

Even on our worst days, my wife’s voice never fails to enchant me.  Her heart beats with the refrains of the Great American Songbook, and deep, pure feelings bubble over her lips as she breathes life into old songs that emerge refreshed and soulful.  When we were first dating, on one of our trips to our favorite karaoke bar (the place we’d met, in point of fact), she invited me to sing “Unforgettable” with her.  While no one is ever going to mistake me for an Idol prospect, the chance to add my voice to hers – literally – was impossible to turn down.  And like the song says, it remains incredible that someone so unforgettable thinks that I am too.  The chemistry was there from the beginning; we knew it when we saw it.  Best times and abysmal, our harmony continues to sound as harmony was intended.  Because we’ve discovered that the composition of this life was written for the two of us to sing together.  That doesn’t mean that on occasion one of us (usually me) doesn’t go off key, or muck up the lyrics.  Regardless of that, we keep singing.  And the song becomes a movement, the movement a symphony, with different themes and motifs that we discover together and add to the ever-growing pile of pages of sheet music.

When you consider the randomness of our encounters – the glance across the crowded room, the brush past on the street, the friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin’s roommate’s former colleague, the matching by computer algorithm – it’s something of a miracle that we find ourselves connecting at all.  I guess you could look at it as throwing enough darts at a board and hoping that inevitably one will find the target.  How do you account for chemistry then?  How is it then that people do often end up finding their soulmate, that individual who is uniquely, for them, unforgettable?  That’s not a question I’ll be able to answer here, after all, thousands of years of literature that both precede and follow me are, like this, mere speculation on a common theme.  Perhaps it’s enough to be grateful that we are able to find that perfect duet partner, and take solace in the idea that perhaps the music was pointing us that way all along.

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With a Song in My Heart: Q is for…

“Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” – Doris Day, 1956.

It was one of those conversations for which I don’t remember the context, originating most likely in a typical child’s naive question about the way of the world.  The location was my grandfather’s cottage on Lake Muskoka, the hard sun of late afternoon stippling the crests of the waves rolling past the dock.  I was wet and cold and sitting on a bench set back from the shoreline, a towel draped over my shoulders.  My grandmother sat next to me, and as a response to whatever it was I had asked, she offered the words of this song, welcoming the unknown future and suggesting that I should do the same.  Much like her son – my father – Nana could be counted upon to fall into song given the slightest opportunity, and her advice was usually musical in its delivery.  Got a problem?  There’s a Gershwin number for that.

Everyone has memories of the scary grandmother’s house, the creaky place an hour’s drive away on a Sunday you would have preferred spending with your toys and television, whose front door was a horrifying portal into the rock-hard furniture and industrial strength ribbon candy of the 1940’s.  Nana’s home, a more modern (for the time, anyway, with its decor more comfortably lodged in the 70’s and 80’s) apartment, was Carnegie Hall, a venue for the most revered performers of the golden age of American music, whether through the radio or the record player.  Though her son’s tastes were rooted in rock & roll, Nana remained loyal to the music she’d grown up with, to timeless singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra.  And there wasn’t a number of theirs whose words she didn’t know and couldn’t sing along with, matching them note  for note, phrase for phrase.  I recall my mother once complaining that she could never hear any music while Nana was in the room because Nana would always sing to it.  While I might have groaned a few times and wondered why we couldn’t put on Duran Duran or any, you know, popular songs, whether I wanted it to or not Cole Porter was getting under my subconscious, Rodgers & Hart were bewitching and bothering my thought patterns and Harold Arlen had my soul on a string.

Thanks to Nana my family had somewhere to stay when we visited Disney World for the first time, the yellow-hued converted mobile home on Mallard Drive I mentioned a few posts ago.  Her relationship with the man who would become my step-grandfather let us play in the waters of Ontario’s famous cottage country for a few weeks every summer.  And wherever she was, this music would be playing.  As grandparents go, Nana was quite “hip,” remaining current with events, technology and popular culture, but always scoring her life with the songs of a bygone era, as if keeping a foot anchored in traditions she knew were important to pass on, carrying the flame of Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn into an era that had replaced nuance with brashness, complexity with synthesizers.  Her old Hammond organ found its way to our house, and she was delighted when I figured out a way to depress the right tabs and program the correct beat in order to offer a passable rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” which she’d sing along to no matter how badly I messed up the rhythm.  As I grew older, the tabs on the Hammond broke one by one and I found myself drawn to the drums instead, she still loved coming to hear me play, bundling up for frigid Santa Claus parades and enduring countless dreary high school band concerts.  I think more than any other relative she appreciated my burgeoning musicality; so she should, given that she had a lot to do with helping to develop it, perhaps hoping somewhere in the back of her mind that I might go professional one day (alas).  She certainly would have loved knowing that Tony Bennett liked and shared my review of his show late last year, given that the first time I heard “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was at the cottage on a warm summer night, with her providing live backing vocals.

It was telling that after she passed away suddenly in 1993 I stopped hearing that music for a long time.  A couple of decades in there I have no memory of any of its kind.  The door to that era was closed, and with it, a piece of me felt missing.  I’d become addicted to those songs without even realizing it, craving the comfort that would return to mind and heart upon hearing the first couple of bars.  When I first began dating the woman who would become my wife, and discovered that her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald, the door opened again.  I realized only then how much I’d missed it, how much that “Nana music” had helped me understand the lasting value in the craft of a perfect couplet, a crisply executed bar of swing, and the passion that could be expressed with a singular voice and a stellar horn section.  The title of this series has been “With a Song in My Heart,” and never was that sentiment truer of anyone than my grandmother, whose heart held a music collection to rival the Library of Congress.  My wife and I have often joked that we wish life would more often erupt into spontaneous musical numbers; though she never said as much I suspect Nana held the same hope.  Even in her sixties, she’d be the first one to grab a microphone and dance.  Though she’s been gone now for over twenty years, one supposes it’s never too late to try to realize that dream.  After all, whatever will be, will be.

Tony Bennett Keeps the Music Playing

Photo by Tom Beetz.  Creative Commons.
Photo by Tom Beetz. Creative Commons.

I’ve got the world on a string today, as I can finally tuck a rarefied, finely plumed feather into my cap – or, if you prefer a more current reference, scratch a prominent item off my bucket list.  Because last Friday, I saw Tony Bennett live.

Stop a moment and read that name again.  Tony Bennett.  The Tony Bennett.

You can’t write a piece on Tony Bennett or review his show without dropping the adjective “legendary” more than a thesaurus would like.  There may be other words with similar meaning, but none truly epitomize the man and the voice.  Dear gods, that voice, projected from an 87-year-old body with none of its power diminished by time.  My grandmother died when she was 86, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to feed herself.  A year her senior, Tony Bennett can stand on a bare stage with a quartet of backing musicians and blow a few thousand jaded audience members out of their padded seats.  From where does that intensity, that passion, that sheer emotional dynamite come?  If only the man could bottle it and sell it, he’d be far richer than he already is.  But what is physically impossible to package, instead he shares, and how lucky are we to be the recipients of his generosity.

Tony Bennett is our last nostalgic link to the era of Frank and Ella and Bing, when men and women took their natural talent, refined it through years of vocal training, hard living and humiliating gigs and polished it into a perfect instrument that could be applied to some of the most elegant pieces of musical poetry ever composed.  Songs that were universal because they weren’t about bling or the thug life or some fantasized notion of puppy love auto-tuned within an inch of sheer roboticness.  These were songs written by people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn, Rodgers & Hart, Harold Arlen – scribes who understood the purity and universality of feelings found in simple moments, like noticing the way your love looks tonight.  That beautiful perception in songwriting, which Tony Bennett’s ongoing career continues to celebrate, has seemingly become an archaic notion.  For heaven’s sake, it took 11 people to write “Jenny From the Block” and they couldn’t even make the lyrics rhyme.  A song can’t be simple anymore, it has to be big, broad, even histrionic to get anyone’s attention.  However, Tony Bennett understands the lasting value of these old songs.  He’s been singing them so long he knows them inside out, back to front, syllable to syllable, note to note.  He knows how they were meant to be performed – in fact, he’s defined how they’re meant to be performed – and as he’s said himself, he treats them as classical music.  And they’re still playing Mozart 400 years on, why shouldn’t Gershwin receive the same accord?  Bennett always acknowledges the writer of a song when he performs it.  As terrific as he obviously is, he never sees himself as better than the notes and the words he’s delivering, and recognizes that he’d be nothing without the hard work of others.  Genuine humility just endears him to us even more.  The greatest ones always see themselves as eternal apprentices – the man who believes he has nothing left to learn is the man who needs to learn the most.

Last Friday, for an hour and twenty minutes without a break, and accompanied only by piano, guitar, standup bass and drums, Bennett led the audience on a guided tour of his most famous songs – standards like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and more – tunes you’ve heard a thousand times on radio, record, tape, CD, iPod, but managed to sound brand new and at the same time, for lack of a better word, classical.  He is traditionally economical in his delivery – no unneeded notes, no elongated frills or scats or anything other than the sheet music asks for – just the ineffable meaning that an old, weathered soul can provide.  His stage patter was likewise minimal, the only real anecdote a touching story about a letter he received from the composer of “Smile,” thanking him for making the song popular again – signed, Charlie Chaplin.  While one would love to have dinner with the man and listen to his stories, when he’s on stage you just want him to sing.  And sing he does.  Bennett achieves the impossible feat of bringing so much of himself to the performance yet somehow staying out of the way of the music, letting it and not his impeccably tailored self take center stage.  He is keen to divert the spotlight away from himself to the ones who back him up – the appropriately-named Lee Musiker on piano, Gray Sargent on guitar, Marshall Wood on bass and “Count Basie’s favorite drummer” Harold Jones.  And as much as his repertoire might be rooted in the past, he does not shy from the bright lights of the future, promising a forthcoming collaboration with Lady Gaga (though we can safely assume it will be firmly on his turf, not hers).

To hear Tony Bennett sing in person is to be transported; to be connected with a golden era of music that dances ever further from reach with each passing year.  They don’t write songs like that anymore, and they don’t make folks like Tony Bennett to sing them, either.  We shall not see his like again, but, given the energy and vitality obviously still coursing through those 87-year-old veins, Bennett is determined to sing, you sinners, until they pry the microphone from his cold, dead fingers.  Ironically, my wife and I had talked a mere handful of weeks ago about ensuring that no matter what it took or what the cost, we would make it out to see him one day – and soon.  Serendipity delivered us Bennett tickets shortly thereafter.  And we sat together in the darkened auditorium, hands clasped, listening to the man whose music accompanied our wedding six years ago and makes us to this day reach for each other and share a slow dance in the kitchen whenever he comes on.  To hear that stuff is to be reminded of the depth of love two people can share, to strive to say it and show it to each other much more often.  And so we thank Tony Bennett and say, that’s how you keep the music playing.

UPDATE:  I posted this to The Huffington Post yesterday and received this response:

tonytweet2

That thud you heard was me fainting.  Tony Bennett!!!!

Painting with notes: Emilie-Claire Barlow live

Emilie-Claire Barlow.

Jazz is probably the only form of music that is equal parts sexy and frustrating; like a beautiful woman in a smoke-draped bar who slips you her phone number on a napkin, only for you to discover that it’s written in an encrypted quantum algorithm.  Emilie-Claire Barlow has the former aspect nailed, with a voice at home in both swinging English and seductive French that can run like the sleekest saxophone.  As for the frustrating part, not a problem – she retains the freshness of the improvisational nature of jazz, but applies a bottomless bag of tricks to an open and accessible package.  Two magnificent hours at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts this past Friday exemplify her appeal.  A striking presence, strutting confidently about the stage in a sleek silver mini-dress amidst her all-male backing band, she defies the expectation that someone so good-looking and talented should be an unapproachable diva.  Despite legs that go all the way to the floor (thanks Aaron Sorkin for the metaphor), she’s a supermodel you somehow don’t feel quite so intimidated about walking up to greet.  She deserves to be much more famous than she is – worthy of the echelon of Michael Bublé – but hopefully time and more great albums and performances will take care of that.  Indeed, one all-too-brief night in the company of her voice is enough to get you hooked.

It’s struck me how similar jazz is to painting, and it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest jazz performers, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett included, were also painters.  If you think of both arts as the careful application of individual colors towards a composite whole, then you have a fairly good sense of how the comparison fits.  On The Beat Goes On, her album of covers of 60’s rock and folk songs that was the centerpiece of Friday’s performance, Barlow has done far more than pour old wine in new bottles, she’s splashed it against her own unique canvas.  She has reinvigorated tired, cheesy karaoke favorites like “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”, playing around with time signatures and tempos and layered them with her breezy intonations, turning them into new creations that would feel right at home at the Bourbon Street Bar around two in the morning.  The title track is a surprising new take on the Sonny and Cher attempt at Dylanesque relevance (that felt dated when it first dropped with goofy lyrics like “Electrically they keep a baseball score”), which hums along crisply before revealing its greatest treasure – that it’s a mashup with Quincy Jones’ danceable “Soul Bossa Nova” (better known as Austin Powers’ theme, or, if you’re a Canadian of the right age, the theme to the gameshow Definition).  Barlow strolls through these songs with ease, but is equally at home with musical standards like “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, haunting ballads like “So Many Stars” or her Piaf-conjuring French-language take on “Dream a Little Dream,” just a few of the other selections from earlier albums she dazzled Friday’s audience with.

Brandi Disterheft.

Barlow’s opening act, jazz bassist and singer Brandi Disterheft, is an intriguing performer in her own right, her tiny fingers dancing across the strings of a massive instrument she can barely lift and drawing out a rush of incredible sound.  Disterheft’s music veers more toward the make-it-up-as-you-go, hipster style of jazz, but there’s so much raw talent there you’re happy to come along for the ride, even if you don’t quite understand where you’re going or the what the deal is with the scenery flying by.  She had the crowd enraptured merely in two brief numbers to kick off the evening, with a style and presence all her own – if Emilie-Claire Barlow is the traditional sultry jazz siren, Brandi Disterheft is Tinkerbell, her practiced ease with her craft making it seem as though the notes that spring forth are indeed the result of pixie magic. 

Speaking of the crowd, one cannot forget to mention their giddiness at hearing Barlow’s closing encore – the Brazilian ditty “O Pato (The Duck).”  Barlow confessed to us after the show that she had dropped it from her setlist for a time but found audiences were asking for it back; indeed, a few “quackers” on Friday were quite insistent on hearing it, sparking many giggles from the enchanting songstress during her stage banter.  If you haven’t heard it, it’s a funny number about a duck who loves to dance the samba and gets his friends the goose and swan to join in – three and a half minutes of unadulterated, swinging joy.  In a way it’s fitting that it has inadvertently become something of a signature song for her, as it sums up her style, this strange, alluring combination of sex appeal and approachable goofiness that is still jazz through and through.  That she’s able to slice off the frustrating aspect and make amazing sounds for the masses is nothing but a credit to how good she is.  Because all the talent in the world is useless if no one gets it.